This wasn’t the type of horror “Resident Evil 5” was trying to elicit.
Long-brewing controversy over the latest installment of Capcom’s genre-defining survival horror series reached its high point two weeks ago, when the sure-to-be-blockbuster title hit retail shelves and millions were allowed the opportunity to determine for themselves whether, as some pundits had insinuated over the past year, the game was racist. While public opinion on the issue isn’t easily measured, those in the mainstream media heartily chimed in with reviews-cum-think-pieces, from the Wall Street Journal‘s discussion of multiculturalism in gaming to the New York Times‘ more blunt and simplistic conclusion that “it’s not racist.” Meanwhile, one of the journalists who ignited the brouhaha upon reviewing a teaser trailer for the game in 2008, MTV Multiplayer blogger Stephen Totilo, softened his stance upon viewing the final build, which he said was “shallow, bearing no sign of the racism some expected.”
Allow me to respectfully disagree. At the heart of the matter is Africa, where “Resident Evil”‘s Caucasian super-agent Chris Redfield is tasked with investigating and, for all intents and purposes, quelling the franchise’s newest zombie outbreak. It’s a scenario familiar to those who have played a prior entry, except in this case, it’s complicated by an obvious dynamic: a strapping white man violently dispatching ghoulish blacks in tattered clothes, or, in some cases, in grass skirts, tribal war paint and masks, wielding spears. They’re “infected” (shades of AIDS), chant and scream in incomprehensible tongues and appear to be performing ritualistic animal and human sacrifices. Sure, they’re possessed, there are some lighter-skinned zombies thrown into the mix (including one Arab guy who strongly resembles — the horror! — Borat), and Chris is provided an African sidekick named Sheva (although she has lighter skin, straight hair and the body of an L.A. porn star). Despite these transparent efforts to tame the stark racial conflict at play, though, for the 12 to 15 hours it takes to complete, “RE5” is all about making an American avatar put bullets in the heads of grotesque Africans, as well as — in inappropriately keeping with a trademark series element — steal gold, jewelry and gems (i.e. blood diamonds) from their corpses to use for weapons purchases.
That game journalists have mounted a hearty defense of a beloved property is neither surprising nor incomprehensible, considering that nothing quite dampens fun like claims that one’s eagerly anticipated entertainment is trading in age-old stereotypes. And the fact that a video game warrants a discussion about race in the first place speaks to the medium’s rapid technological advances, which now afford a level of realism high enough to spark mature conversations about representation. But that’s about the only bright side to the “RE5” debate, given that, having blasted my way through the Africa-set campaign, there’s simply no getting around the xenophobia plaguing the game. It’s not just minor. It’s upfront, rampant and of the most archaic variety. And, moreover, it has a cinematic precedent, as “RE5” is, strictly in terms of terms of imagery and narrative, a clumsy hybridization of two preeminently offensive films, “The Serpent and the Rainbow” and “The Constant Gardener.”
It’s with the Haiti-set “Serpent” that “RE5” shares its most significant ties, since both focus on white men who traverse an exotic foreign locale that’s malevolent and unnatural, and encounter black inhabitants (many decked out in tribal paint) who’ve been zombified by mysterious agents — in “Serpent,” it’s voodoo powder, and in “RE5,” a weaponized biological parasite. Directed by Wes Craven, “Serpent” takes a docudrama approach to its material (based on a nonfiction book about Haitian zombification), while “RE5” is modeled after modern-day action and horror cinema, as well as its franchise precursors. Yet aside from “RE5” benefiting from not having Bill Pullman as its leading man, the imagery promoted by both titles is an offensively stereotypical one of a “dark continent” that’s inherently hazardous to light-skinned outsiders, who can’t, except via potentially fatal hardship, hope to comprehend the supernatural phenomenon that threatens to engulf them.
Rushing to contradict, some have noted the lack of outcry over “Resident Evil 4″‘s depiction of Spanish zombies, and argued that blacks are as fair game for zombiedom as any other ethnic or racial group. What both points fail to recognize, however, is that the specific representations of race in “RE5” have a long, troubled history that still persists today, as recently evidenced, for example, by Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of “King Kong,” which dutifully included the 1933 original’s portrait of ooga-booga Skull Island savages.