28 Days Later: Hey look, supporting female characters who aren't objects!
This post was originally published on Heroine Content, a feminist and anti-racist movie blog that ran from July 2006 to May 2012.
Trigger warning on this film for threats of sexual assault.
Until Patrick's review of Ghosts of Mars a couple of weeks ago, It's been on the negative side at Heroine Content lately. I actually caught myself thinking "Are we done with this blog? Does the world really need an endless parade of posts about things that suck?"
I watched 28 Days Later, and now I feel better. Let me tell you about it.
Jim ( white actor Cillian Murphy) wakes up in a seemingly abandoned hospital, ventures out into a seemingly abandoned London, and discovers that a zombie plague has infected and wiped out almost everyone, everywhere.
Jim is saved by Mark (white actor Noah Huntley) and Selena (Naomie Harris, who is British and black, her mother was born in Jamaica). Selena is strong, focused, and she is going to survive the apocalypse dammit. When one of their party is infected, she wastes no time in hacking him to death with a machete. She also lets Jim know up front that she is not letting him get her killed. Her outlook is bleak, true, but what she's been through is also far worse than what Jim experienced - or rather didn't, having spent the collapse of civilization in a coma.
When Selena and Jim investigate other potential signs of life, they meet up with former cabbie Frank (white actor Brendan Gleeson a.k.a. Mad-Eye Moody) and his teenage daughter Hannah (white actor Megan Burns). Hannah is quiet, but steady in a crisis. She's a realist in all senses of the word - understanding the dangers of the current situation, but also knowing that if they become numb and lose their humanity, there is no future, even if they are technically survivors. The loving relationship between Hannah and her father starts to draw Selena back towards bonding with other people and the group of four starts turning into a family as they travel towards possible safety.
Selena and Hannah are perfect examples of how women can be kick-ass supporting characters in a movie where the lead character is a man. They don't exist as plot devices to further his agenda, they are not damsels in distress even when they are upset or in danger. (Maybe zombie movies are perfect for discarding gender stereotypes. When the infected are charging toward you, do you really care who is lobbing the molotov cocktails or getting the tire changed so you can get the hell out of there?)
When the three of them are separated, Selena and Hannah do hope Jim survives his own trial and makes it back to help out, but in the meantime they do what they can with what they have at hand - even if they are overpowered physically, they are going to find a way to survive. Though Selena is being held at gunpoint, by that point in the film you KNOW her. You can't believe that she is not just biding her time. She's not going to throw her life away to resist, and she's going to protect Hannah as best she can, and then they are going to get the hell out of there. I also loved watching Hannah turn to Selena for support rather than the whole world revolving around Jim.
Towards the end of the film, there is - to my mind - an extremely realistic depiction of the vulnerability of women and girls, especially, against armed men from a sexist culture in a situation where law and order have broken down. However, it isn't played for gratuitous sexual (or other) violence, which I appreciated. What I also appreciated was the depiction of how this violent, patriarchal new regime is resisted by men. Jim risks his life because he's not willing to benefit from male privilege at the expense of his friends' lives and so does another man with no personal connection to Hannah and Selena. The consequences they endure are a textbook case of how patriarchy has expectations for both women and men, and you flout them at your peril.
Does Jim save the day, and the women? Yes, because he is the main character. But Hannah ends up breaking a bottle over Jim's head, then disposing of the final obstacle to the trio's happiness in an extremely poetic fashion, and I could not have been more in love with her as a character by then if I tried.
There was one fly in the ointment for me. The chained black man. This is an image you should NOT use unless you are specifically making a point about atrocities committed against people of African descent, and even then, in a zombie movie, there's just no good reason to do this. Find someone else to be infected and chained up to study the progress of the infection BECAUSE (are you paying attention?) WHEN YOU DO THAT, YOU ARE UNAVOIDABLY REFERENCING THE TUSKEGEE EXPERIMENT AND A WHOLE BUNCH OF OTHER SHIT THAT WAS REALLY, REALLY AWFUL AND RACIST. I don't care if it's the villain who did it, I don't care that there are other people of color around who are not infected and chained up, just don't. Please.
Beyond the Heroine Content aspects, the film was not at all what I expected. In a good way. From hearing about how fast the zombies were, and a few other details, I was hoping it wouldn't be too scary and gory for me to tolerate. I don't mind violence, but I really don't do horror movies that are parades of screaming and hacking body parts. This was so far from being that. There was some damn scary stuff, don't get me wrong, but the zombies were almost incidental. If we were going to go by stereotypical film genres, this is almost a chick flick zombie movie, more about relationships than brutality.
Three stars. And I really hope that 28 Weeks Later is the further adventures of Selena and Hannah.
(I didn't realize until writing this post that Naomie Harrie also played Mika in Ninja Assassin! That is so cool! And she was Tia Dalma in two of the Pirates movies. Wait, what? An African-American woman who is possibly starting to make a career of supporting roles in action films? Note to self: all is potentially not lost. Also, note to self, perfect excuse to buy Ninja Assassin on DVD so I can
enjoy watching Rain... err, review it in a serious and thought-provoking way for Heroine Content.)