Hollywood’s Solaris: #OscarsSoWhite Today, and #OscarsSoWhite in the ‘Future”

‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’
William Shakespeare, Julius Ceasar

A generation or two of Earthlings in the US became accustomed to seeing explorers. In the average American living room, cowboys, dressed in cowhide and wearing their characteristic white hats, assembled a posse nearly every episode to defend the homeland, women, and children against marauding tribes of “savages.” Armed with rifles, the cowboys, often along with local law enforcement, removed every last “Indian,” men, women, and children, every episode, from the land that the “savages” once called home.

It was the good old 1950s.

1954. In that year, the television debut of Flash Gordon, a certain Dr. Zarkov called on a young space “hero,” Flash Gordon, to save the planet from an evil protagonist, Emperor Ming. Gordon, became an explorer, of sorts. He was forever in search, it seemed, of the “beautiful” blond Dale Arden, who was forever captured and re-captured by Ming the Merciless. In the same year, 14-year old Emmett Till is captured by white supremacists, tortured, and murdered in Mississippi for supposedly ” at a “beautiful” white woman. In space, the year is 3202.

Back on Earth, children of my generation were treated to Frazier Thomas’ Garfield Goose and Friends. Garfield, the puppet goose, (along with his friends a rabbit and an occasional mouse), appointed Thomas Admiral of the King’s Navy. By order of King Garfield, Thomas wore the “Prime Minister’s uniform” on which was displayed “two large round medals with the words Deutschland and Oesterreich (Germany and Austria).” In addition to those medals, his sleeves had badges “for Italy, England, France, Scotland” (Chicago Television.com). In later years, Thomas’s uniform also had a badge featuring “the Apollo 11 moon landing” (Chicago Television.com).

Pretty stranger!

Even stranger, go back and view a few Hollywood films from the 1970s. The Afro-wearing brothers had what the young generation of today might call “attitudes.” In the so-called Black Exploitation films such as Shaft, Coffy, or SuperFly, the naturals are moderate to huge. Even in those mainstream movies, however, such as All the Presidents Men or Blazing Saddles, the Black men wear naturals as did Sidney Poitier in 1963 in Lillies of the Field or in To Sir, With Love, 1967. Today, the bald head or slicked-down wavy hair is prevalent because today everyone has come to accept the fact that no one today wants to see the “kinky” hair of Black Americans. And, as for “attitude,” no one will pay to see (and therefore no studio will produce) a film featuring an “angry” Black man or woman—unless, of course, that angry Black is Denzel Washington portraying a corrupt Black police officer in Training Days or an irresponsible and seriously alcoholic Black airline pilot in Flight. Otherwise, today racism is as old as the old heads, those once natural-wearing actors with “attitudes.”

Times have changed, huh? We honor Dr. Martin Luther King, don’t we? We wave the American flag, too, on Independence Day, yeah? We have mortgages; we send our children to privatized schools; we wear the uniforms of either the military or the police. We are even generals and chiefs. We are the attorney general or the president of the United States. We see the “enemy” over there, too, don’t we? We shop at the malls to purchase the latest flat-screen television or smart phone or die in the streets selling cigarettes or cds—all in an effort to try to adhere to the American Dream.

The “future, we were told, looks ever so bright, yeah?

But the “future” as represented by Hollywood reflects a rather strange reality in which the repetitious shooting of Black citizens by frightened police, the equally repetitious acquittal of those police officers, co-mingles with the widening social and economic equality gap between white citizens and Black citizens, and the continual expression of hatred for Black citizens, followed by laws and policies to repress Black potential and incarcerate Black bodies and minds, but, nevertheless, if we just continue in the belief that we all exist in a post-racial era, the “future” looks bright! #OscarsSoWhite today; #OscarsSoWhite tomorrow!

Astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson wrote an article published in Parade Magazine in which he makes the case for a return of human to space. The work of scientists and engineers building and guiding probes and satellites to distance stars and planets is a necessary and certainly goes a long way to amazing knowledge about the origins of the universe and the planet in which we humans came into existence. But he argues that the exploration of space by humans would symbolize “the urge to dream and the will to enable it” (“Why America Needs to Explore Space.” 2007). Exploration, Tyson continues, is a trait fundamental to being human. If you visit countries where hope has been diminished, you will witness “people reduced to worrying only about that day’s shelter or the next day’s meal.” He adds: “It’s a shame, even tragedy, how many people don’t get to think about the future.”

I doubt Tyson wants us to envision of future as presented in the 2002 science-fiction film, Solaris.

As a vehicle for the Hollywood star, George Clooney, I am sure its producers did not intend to produce a work that so explicitly upholds the values of white supremacy. Harsh. Yes! But Solaris does just that. I like Clooney. Goodnight, and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, The Ides of March are thoughtful films. But Solaris is a different matter.

Could you imagine me the producer, or worse the writer of this cultural production that is the film, Solaris?

Set in the distant “future,” the viewing audience is immediately introduced to psychologist Dr. Chris Kelvin, played by George Clooney. The camera follows him, as he is the “IT” in his environment, the authority, the white male a degree of power. Dr. Kelvin has privilege! The audience follows him in the streets and sits alongside him on the train, even as he is surrounded by a matter-of-fact, multicultural world.

In this world, which looks like the land of the brave and free, space travel is routine—at least for US citizens, representatives of the “universal.” Who knows what is happening anywhere else in the world in Solaris.

Something is definitely amiss here, with our guy Kelvin. In the high-tech but sparsely furnished apartment, sits Kelvin, somber. While Kelvin prepares a meal, the “doorbell rings.” Kelvin turns to what looks like a communications screen on his wall near the kitchen. Touchscreen. Touch that and a view of his visitors appears. Touch this: zoom in, zoom out. Two faces and ID information appears on a transparent background. The visitors are legitimate.

It turns out these two are messengers, instructed to inform Kelvin to contact his friend, a scientist, Dr. Gibarian, on the Solaris space station. It is urgent! Screen on. Now appears an anxious Gibarian. Please come! Only you can help! The problem? Well, he can’t say. Communication is not secure.

This is not a good time for the good doctor who lost his wife. She committed suicide sometime before, and, since then, Kelvin has been weary of space travel because he feels he was somehow responsible for her death. But Gibarian, a friend. He needs Kelvin’s help.

On the space station orbiting planet Solaris, Kelvin, tasked with investigating the mysterious activities aboard the spaceship, discovers his friend Gibarian has committed suicide, and the two remaining crew members, a young man named Snow, and a Dr. Gordon, are reluctant to leave. What is going on? Everyone must leave the space station and return to earth! Period!

But Solaris is more than a planet. Mesmerizing strings of swirling, colorful gases surrounding it. It is alluring. It is Solaris, says Gordon. It taps the mind. Stay and you can start all over again. Loved ones return.“All is forgiven.”

Kelvin retires to his quarters to think about this bizarre turn of events. And about Solaris. But he cannot think nor can he sleep. Before long, he has a visitor. Rheya, his wife. She is alive!

The viewer is asked not only to empathize with Kelvin but also to join in his quest. And the questions he has to ponder: Go back, before suicide and despair? Or go back and remember happier days when Kelvin and Rheya met and fell in love?

This Rheya, Kelvin thinks, must be an illusion. He sends this incarnation of Rheya off in a spaceship to float forever. That night, however, another Rheya returns.

But when Kelvin looks out his window he sees Solaris. The spacecraft is moving ever closer to Solaris. It offers an opportunity to start life anew! To consider the concept of forgiveness! The past can be washed cleaned! Solaris offers the chance to act on those philosophical ideas humans have pondered for centuries.  It offers a future beyond the human imagination.

Or not?

Let me interject here. Dr. Gordon, is played by actress Viola Davis, who, a two-time Tony winner, a two-time nominee for the Academy Award, and winner of the Best Actress Screen Actors Guild, again, twice.  And these are just a few of her awards. Davis is an actress! And a good one! I think she “stole,” as they say, that scene between her and Meryl Streep in the 2008 film, Doubt. But while Davis, along with Streep, and Philip Semour Hoffman was nominated for her role in the film, Doubt is a vehicle produced for Streep and Hoffman.  Although I don’t know why Streep would be considered. As one Salon critic put it, Streep’s performance scaled “new heights of absurdity.” But, then, I guess I do know why Streep was nominated, again!

In the meantime, this year, 2016, Davis did not attend the Academy Awards. According to ET News, She explained that the problem with Hollywood was not the Academy Awards but “with the Hollywood movie-making system.” Ah, now we are getting somewhere! The All-So-White-Oscars campaign targeted the Academy Awards’ ceremony, but few wanted to point to the capitalism production of these all-so-white cultural productions of white supremacy!

In Solaris, Davis, as Dr. Gordon, is in command of the Solaris space station. Gordon supposedly has “authority,” “power,” “expertise” in this environment. At best, she would theoretically be Kelvin’s equal, at least, but, when Kelvin enters her world, it is he who takes charge, rather than the space station’s commander. After all, the film makes clear from the start that in this production of a future world, it is Kelvin’s narrative, his investigation of mystery, and he has entered his quarters to confer with “Rheya”–a figment of his imagination rather than with the very alive, Black woman commander, Dr. Gordon.

Therefore little in Solaris is or could be beyond his imagination.

No, I couldn’t have been the producer or the writer!

In Solaris, the Black woman is allowed to communicate to Kelvin and the viewing audience how this dream of a return to some state of innocence is absurd. The idea of a cleansed past! But then again, the producers of Solaris want to entertain. They do not want to take the audience too far. If the audience wants to go where few Americans have gone before, the producers would have defied the original blueprint, that is, the 1961 novel by the same name written by the Polish writer, Stanislaw Lem, and crafted this project around Gordon and her position on the station and in this film. But producers give American viewers what they want to see. And they don’t want to see Davis; they want to see Clooney and his “beautiful” Rheya. They make for an adorable couple. A natural representation of the past and the future. Gordon is the only other real person in this film outside of Kelvin. The Black woman and the white male, Kelvin. How do you sell that vehicle to Hollywood investors? Or to the American public?

But isn’t this film about the human, that is, the universal human imagination and memory, as many good and liberal producers and writers would interject. But did Lem, the book’s author, have a Black woman commander in mind? Hollywood certainly did! And why, if not to seem as if Hollywood as traveled far since the days of its earlier representations of explorers.

Is Gordon the dissenting voice? I don’t think the producers thought of her as such, a dissenting voice. But this Black woman’s presence in this film does muddy the waters.

Gordon soon has a change of heart. Solaris is not freedom. It’s death! Everyone must leave Solaris’ orbit! They are in danger, Gordon tells Kelvin. We, humans are not in control here! Something is manipulating human memory.

So now, “something” that is manipulating humans is the planet, Solaris. And it is Gordon who must utter this idea!

Gordon repeats: They must leave the ship. But Kelvin does not want to hear the opinion of the ship’s commander. The audience, as if it had options, is to stay focused on the “universal” beauty of the unreal Rheya, the absurd idea of innocence and forgetfulness. For all Gordon’s efforts, her “expertise” as a spaceship commander, she is silenced by Kelvin and ignored by the camera, the “eye” of the producers of this creative venture into space. The camera follows Kelvin. Solaris follows the money! Solaris must ultimately sell something on the global market. Ironically, Hollywood is not offering us anything fundamentally new in Solaris.

Gordon returns to her quarters. To her business. The audience is not shown what that business is. The audience has no cue. Maybe she is polishing her nails! The audience is not urged to care about what the ship’s commander is doing behind the closed doors of her quarters. What could a Black woman know about those  “universal,” philosophical questions? What would be her role in pondering those questions? The audience is not shown how Gordon figures out the mystery that is Solaris. She knows. But the camera’s eye cannot linger on her face long enough to see her thinking, problem solving. After all, Gordon, too, the audience is informed, has “visitors.” But, again, whatever past lover or deceased spirit haunt her, it is her problem. Not for the viewer to care about.

Solaris seems to pulsate with the life of its producers and its white audience.

Solaris, as a the capitalist production, socializes its audience to accept white supremacy as matter-of-fact. It is not strictly an economic issue that prevents us from seeing Gordon who spends most of the film in her quarters. It is not just “the budget.” Solaris is a cultural production, and, as such, it teaches and re-enforces ideas about socially and politically acceptable relations among human beings. Exploration of the future includes token Blacks stuck within white narratives of innocence.

What does Kelvin want? After all, that is what matters. He wants to live with Rheya forever. He wants Rheya to be real and not, as Gordon insists, a fantasy. In his quarters, Kelvin interrogates Rheya. Is she real? Who is she? When did they meet, and marry? She answers all the questions correctly, innocently, while admitting that she has no idea what is happening. Why is she on the space station?

Rheya is because Kelvin is! Once she becomes as solidly a fixed character as he is on the film, the camera lingers on her. On the two of them. Now, the two of them are all that matters, and the camera cannot resist close ups of Rheya’s face. Solaris is Rheya and the man who loves her more than life itself. Does an American audience deepen its sympathy for the lovers? Well, its America. Americans enjoy a good romance story.

Rheya “life” supersedes Gordon’s life. Rheya is the woman who matters. Consequently, Kelvin firmly reprimands Gordon: His Rheya’s existence! Never mind that Gordon, too, is a woman and that her life is jeopardized by what is not real. By Solaris. But Commander Gordon is not his Rheya, everyone’s ideal woman.

I expected Gordon would succumb to the usual fate of death by space alien for the token Black space traveler of the future. It happens often. Think of Alien. The Wrath of Khan. Many others. But Gordon is not killed off.

In the end, Gordon leaves for Earth, alone. (“Snow” is not human. Both Gordon and Kelvin discover the corpse of the real Snow hidden in a compartment of the ship’s overhead). Does Kelvin owe Gordon an explanation? No. Of course not. He just changes his mind. No need to communicate with Gordon. He stays! The camera is on him as he stands behind Gordon seated at the controls of a spaceship. Then he is not there! The camera follows behind him. Rationality maybe be on her side, but this film is not about Gordon’s perspective. Good luck, Dr. Gordon!

Clooney’s Kelvin stays, dies—dies, that is, to wake again beside his love, Rheya. Well, it is a “love” story, after all. A vehicle for the American expression of “love”–love of self, love of fantasy, for now and for forever! Soderbergh has it right. The audience agrees. Hollywood knows the “future,” and it is capitalist, patriarchal, and, above all, white.

So much for the future, according to Hollywood!

Dr. Lenore Daniels

Dr. Daniels holds a PhD in Modern American Literature, with a specialty in Cultural Theory (race, gender, class narratives) from Loyola University, Chicago. Her publications include scholarly articles for The Canadian Women’s Studies Journal, The Griot, and Americana. She has served as a writer for several community newsletters and co-editor for Chicago Alliance for Neighbourhood Safety Newsletter. Currently, she writes a commentary for The Journal, Platteville, Wisconsin and the Black Commentator.

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