Is NO ESCAPE racist?

No Escape

No Escape

First off, this isn’t a review of No Escape.  One review won’t correct the film’s Metascore and I’m not going to try.¹  If I were going to review the film, however, I’d probably call it the most exciting, nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat thriller you’ll see all year.  (The Weinstein Company is free to use that blurb-ready quote if they need a critical boost.)

In lieu of reviewing the film, I want to discuss why certain critics dislike it and if they are wrong to do so for the reasons they state.  I make a point to avoid spoilers, since I do not need to reveal everything about No Escape to state my case.  In case you know nothing of the plot, here is a brief synopsis: Owen Wilson accepted a job with a large MegaCorporation, Cardiff, he didn’t bother to learn anything about.  This necessitates moving his family to a third-world country he also didn’t bother to learn anything about.  Turns out, his company is screwing over the population of said ‘third-world’ country, and some of them are unhappy about this.  So, members of the population armed enough to react kill the prime minister, who is colluding with American corporations, and thereafter seek to dispatch the remaining American presence in their country.  This puts Wilson in the awkward position of having to run for his life, with his family in tow, from the militants.  The director, John Erick Dowdle, after a prologue depicting the coup, takes a first-person limited narrative approach to the story; we only know and see what Wilson and his wife and daughters know and see.

So, those critics who gave No Escape a negative review—what are they saying about it?

Jake Cole: ‘Director John Erick Dowdle films [the Asian antagonists] in choppy, incomprehensible shots that dehumanize them further into a zombie-like force meant solely to terrify, which makes it so much easier to cheer when a white person kills one of them.’

Peter Travers: ‘…these avatars of the “yellow peril” will rape your wife… and kill your bratty, pre-teen girls.  As for the nonwhite members of the community, who cares?  This movie doesn’t.’

Bilge Ebiri: ‘These aren’t zombies or demons but real people doing terrible things — except that they might as well be zombies or demons, given the way the film presents its faceless Asian killers.’

Nick Shager: ‘To say [No Escape] takes a negative view of its Southeast Asian setting would be an understatement, to the point that it doesn’t even explicitly denote where its action is taking place.’

…and suchlike.

Okay.  So a few critics don’t like the representation of some characters, which leads them to call the film racist and give it a negative review.  Is that all that is necessary to qualify a film as racist?  I’m genuinely asking this question.  I would say no, but I’m willing to be persuaded.

Honestly, I’m reminded of the Sundance premier of Better Luck Tomorrow, that great film following a group of Asian-American students who, looking for some excitement in their otherwise dull lives, turn to drugs and crime.  A spectator at a Q&A chastised the director for portraying Asian-Americans in a negative light.  Roger Ebert immediately stood up and shouted ‘What I find very offensive and condescending about your statement is nobody would say to a bunch of white filmmakers, “How could you do this to your people?”…This film has the right to be about these people, and Asian-Americans have the right to be whatever the hell they want to be. They do not have to “represent” their people.’

Now, Better Luck Tomorrow was directed by an Asian-American, possibly complicating my analogy.  Or does it?  If it had been directed by, say, Brett Ratner, would the film’s use of Asian stereotypes now, suddenly, be racist?  Similarly, if Justin Lin had directed No Escape, would that alleviate some of the discomfort critics feel about its portrayal of particular Asians? Shouldn’t we just be looking at what is on the screen?

But here’s a more fundamental question, I think: let’s assume that No Escape‘s harsher critics are correct, and that it is absolutely racist.  Does that mean that it is automatically a bad film?  Would the fact that a film, or any work of art, doesn’t wholly conform to your own personal ideals say anything at all about the craft or quality of it?  (Make sure your answer doesn’t include the word ‘problematic.’)

Hmm… Honestly, this is heading into territory I didn’t anticipate when I began this essay.  My main impetus to begin writing is that I think critics are either ignoring or misreading No Escape‘s theme.  Sure, Dowdle follows the white family, and concerns himself only with their viewpoint.  It may be true that at the start, as Justin Chang said, the film is ‘banking on [the] audience willing to identify solely and completely with the characters’ fish-out-of-water confusion.’  I don’t see this as a bad thing.  All we know when the action starts is that scary antagonists want to kill our protagonists.  But it’s disingenuous not to acknowledge that by the end, the film has condemned Wilson’s myopia.  The reason the country doesn’t have a name, the reason most of the Asian characters are indistinguishable from each other, the reason we don’t know much of Cardiff’s machinations, is because we only know what Wilson’s character knows at any given moment and Wilson’s character is a fucking moron.  Showing every possible side of the racial situation would not improve the movie—Paul Haggis’s Crash, for your consideration—and blunt the theme of the film.

Scary furriners in No Escape.

Scary furriners in No Escape.

The theme that No Escape spends its running time dramatizing is that the average American citizen should pay much closer attention to what its corporations and government are doing, or else stop being so surprised when the people they thoughtlessly help exploit rise up and demand not to be exploited anymore.  You’re bound to see discontent foreigners as malicious mobs unless you get your head out of your own ass and take a look at the world before engaging in it.  Many Americans, I’m sure, are very worried about nonwhite ‘furriners’ trying to kill them, but how many of them are actually willing to examine why said furriners want to do that?  It’s how we get ridiculous slogans like ‘They Hate Us For Our Freedoms.’  No Escape managed to put me in sympathy with the family and the militants who feel, after so much oppression and tyranny, that they have no other option.  I think of The Battle of Algiers—who were the real terrorists in that movie?  (Please note that I am comparing themes only, not quality.  The Battle of Algiers has much loftier ambitions and more artistry than No Escape, no argument.)  In No Escape, Wilson’s family gets dragged though hell because ignorance of evil is no excuse for it.  The film at the start does seem like it will be about white heroes defending themselves against ferocious savages, but manages upend those stereotypes to weave a more complex theme about white American ignorance by the end.  Wilson’s character has only himself to blame for being in this situation, and his family suffers for it.²

Finally, I’ve read some critics who find the antagonists’ motivations clumsily ‘tacked-on.’  Yes, there is one scene where Pierce Brosnan’s character explicitly explains the situation.  But that is after the opening scene depicting the coup and non-subtle clue after clue that Wilson’s company is up to no good.  Because it is a short scene of exposition, the critics I’ve quoted seem to think that it is okay to dismiss it, and judge the film as if it never took place.

So, I’m sorry, I just don’t buy that No Escape is racist.  I don’t think that is the film’s attitude, or that such a viewpoint is supported by it.  I think a lot of well-meaning critics saw that some Asian characters were initially presented in a negative light without context and didn’t think too deeply about it before reacting.  That Dowdle manages to make his point while also giving us gripping and suspenseful action make the movie a winner for me.

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¹ Actually, one review DOES need correcting.  Richard Roeper gave the film 3/4 stars, but Metacritic lists his numerical score as a ’38.’  It’s been a while since I took a maths course, but something seems off, there.  Plus, by my calculations, even without Roeper’s revised score, the Metascore should be a yellow 41.  Something isn’t quite right.

² Would the theme be the same if the protagonists were, say Chinese or Russian?  It is, after all, important that the lead belong to a powerful country, with interests in an exploited nation.  Something tells me that NO ESCAPE would not have quite the same thematic punch.  Who is the world’s biggest superpower, doing most of the exploiting?  I do concede the theme would have been the same if the leads were, say, Will Smith and Lupita Nyong’o.

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