White Man in Foreign Lands: Xenophobia and Racism in Movies

Every few years, it happens.

Innocently sitting in a theater — desperate for redemption for our now empty wallets — the house lights dim and the string of trailers begins. It’s the usual mishmash of ill-fated comedies and muscled-man-big-explosion adventures…until there it is. It’s happened again.

You know what I’m talking about, one of those run-of-the-mill Man Must Save His Family gamuts, but set in a Foreign Country (capital letters because it really doesn’t matter where; more on this later), and that’s where the problems begin.

This is the trailer I saw for Owen Wilson’s new action flick, No Escape, in theaters this past weekend:

Highlights:

  • Opens with the usual juxtaposition between West and East, highlighting the “foreignness” of this new country. The exotification is mostly used to “other” this place, placing the characters and viewers out of their comfort zone. The small white child asks, “What if we don’t like it here?” The assumption is that 1) They will not like it here and 2) Why would they? The movie then proceeds to show us why they will not.
  • The line that most people seem to be criticizing the most — for good reason — is Pierce Brosnan’s  “Welcome to Asia.” The criticism focuses on the writers not bothering to pick a single country out of the entire continent, which is fair criticism, but I still hear, “Welcome to Malaysia,” which would make sense in the context of the 2011 Malaysian riots over electoral reforms.  We will discuss this later, too.
  • Here’s where things get (even more) sketchy: The image of Owen Wilson as single white man in between crowds of rioters and police. He is the outsider caught between a rock and a hard place: both groups of local people are dangerous. Even as we see other local civilians fleeing the scene, the audience is focused on the single foreigner amidst brown bodies.
  • We are also privy to the fact that the rioters (terrorists? No one really cares to distinguish why they are doing what they are doing in this trailer. As far as anyone cares it is violence for violence’s sake. This is seen namely in the murder of foreigners (white tourists) both in the streets and as the terrorists hunt out tourists to kill in the hotels.
  • Our protagonist’s goal becomes clear: He has to get his family to the American embassy. America = safety. Unlike the rest of these heathen streets. The last line of the trailer is Wilson’s daughter tearfully saying, “I wanna go home.” Wilson promises her, “We’re gonna get there.” This place is not home. It could never be to people like us. Of course.

Where to begin with this mess?

To start, I suppose we can acknowledge that it is extremely difficult to get a clear-cut answer about the name of the country in which this story takes place. It seems to be a toss up between Thailand (where filming actually takes place) and Malaysia, although I have seen some articles calling it a fictional Southeast Asian country, (which, what?!) This may explain the “Welcome to Asia” line. The writers simply don’t care to acknowledge a specific place with a specific history and culture and peoples.

A lot of people have been touching on the xenophobia inherent in this sort of film premise: White family must escape from a backdrop of a crowd of faceless Asian people (“The trailer is framed exactly like a zombie movie” says one review and this is true. The movie is directed by the man who brought us Quarantine, a shot-by-shot remake of the Spanish film, Rec, made especially for the Western world to avoid reading subtitles). But no one really seems to be explaining outright why this movie is both racist and xenophobic, leaving room for a lot of naysayers who don’t understand why we don’t want them to just have a good time at the movies and watch Owen Wilson in his triumphant(?) return to action cinema.

Owen Wilson taking up arms for his loved ones in No Escape.He will have to go to extremes in this foreign country as he wouldn't have to in America. Supposedly.
Owen Wilson taking up arms for his loved ones in No Escape.
He will have to go to extremes in this foreign country as he wouldn’t have to in America. Supposedly.


So, what’s wrong with the scenario set up in
No Escape?

From a writing standpoint, the plot probably makes a fair amount of sense: A new environment confuses and disorients both protagonist and audience. An unknown enemy adds to the elements of violence and danger; anything can happen to the protagonist and his family when neither audience nor hero knows the enemy’s limits or capabilities. The list can go on.

However. The story draws from real events that affected real people in a real country. Having filmed in Thailand, surely someone was bound to have heard of the mass rallies in Bangkok in 2013-2014 that eventually ended in a coup (No Escape was originally named The Coup) and the establishment of a military leadership. (I’ve already mentioned the possibility that the film may also draw from Malaysian protests in 2011, as I hold to the hope that Brosnan’s character says “Welcome to Malaysia” because the alternative is horrifyingly racist).

Calling the movie No Escape implies that this foreign country is a place to be escaped, populated with peoples that are more suited for the unsuitability of said environment, i.e. nowhere any “civilized” Western family should inhabit for longer than at all possible

More on problematic representation behind the cut.


Like 2012’s very misguided, The Impossible, (Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor are tourists in Thailand during the disastrous 2004 tsunami following the third-largest earthquake ever recorded), placing an American protagonist at the forefront of another country’s horrors is more than just cringe-worthy. It erases any of the actual people affected by the precipitating event (the tsunami in The Impossible, the coup in No Escape). Their stories of how this event affects their life in their own country is eclipsed by a white protagonist seeking to flee the circumstances.

The biggest problem with this plotline is that, in the end, the “hero” can escape. He is rewarded with his family’s safety and his return to a larger environment of safety in the West. What he leaves behind is not something that he or the audience ever needs to think about again. Meanwhile, the people that actually leave in these “foreign” environments are left to deal with an aftermath that we are not meant to care or think about once the credits start to roll. These people, in the larger picture, simply do not exist.

This movie takes place in Thailand. Can you tell?
This movie takes place in Thailand. Can you tell?

Indeed, in the actual plot, it’s certain to be an “us vs. them” mentality, as in “Americans vs. Foreigners.” It is pretty much an outright rejection of any culture other than any Western ideals (particularly white American lifestyles).  We’ve seen this in everything from Lost in Translation (which seems to handpick the most ridiculous aspects of Japanese culture to showcase without bothering to understand the cultural traditions at the root of certain speech or practices) to Sex in the City 2’s jaunt through Abu Dhabi, and even Avatar, which showed us that even entire alien species are no match for white American heroism’s ability to save new worlds and old.

But that’s the problem. Why is it only a white, American male’s job to save the world? For that matter, why is it assumed that the world is their world? Media representation of the traditional xenophobic narrative seen in No Escape is definitely no help. Reinforcing the ideas that the “natives” are either unable to save themselves or too negligible to save is deeply problematic. The fact that no one considered explaining either the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia and Thailand from a local perspective, or the coups in Malaysia and Thailand speaks volumes to what Hollywood expects out of their audiences: a lack of capacity to care for other countries, their people, and their stories. We see this in the continual remakes of other country’s films, whitewashing the cast and replacing subtitles with English (the assumed dominant world standard).

Don't think this is only happening in these two movies mentioned here.A screencap from one of the most popular shows on cable TV right now, Game of Thrones, shows white savior Daenerys among her "followers."
Don’t think this is only happening in these two movies mentioned here.
A screencap from one of the most popular shows on cable TV right now, Game of Thrones, shows white savior Daenerys among her “followers.”

So far it seems that a lot of reviewers are holding their tongues until the full movie comes out. Whether they’re hoping for a surprise moving speech about the nature of humanity or what, I don’t know. But the fact stands that No Escape will be focusing on a white American family’s plight from an unspecified Southeast Asian hoard of violence and terror, in favor of giving actual human traits to anyone other than said white American family.

It is 2015 and there is still “no escape” from severe lack of diversity in media, particularly Hollywood movies. It is time to start believing in alternate perspectives, from diverse sexuality to race and body type and the list goes on. Because we exist. And our stories matter, too. It’s time other people began to see this, too. What better way than in the movies?

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One thought on “White Man in Foreign Lands: Xenophobia and Racism in Movies

  1. ““The trailer is framed exactly like a zombie movie” says one review and this is true.”

    That’s so funny, right after I read your synopsis of the trailer I thought “So it’s World War Z but with brown people instead of zombies”. Yikes.

    I’ve never heard of The Impossible (which is odd – I love disaster movies), and it’s a shame it’s so biased. Tourists are actually a very vulnerable population in disaster situations, but I’m guessing the movie isn’t meant to promote disaster preparedness…(heaven forbid it be educational!) 😛 Just the usual Eurocentric BS.

    Like

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