The Aversive Racism of Tenet

When discussing blockbuster entertainments and their representations it’s important to understand genre formulas and expectations as recent trends in Hollywood productions are in direct relation to these models.

The subversion of expectation is often the selling point of the new summer blockbuster: The trolling anti-hero (Deadpool), the misunderstood villain (Maleficent, Cruella, Shrek), Female action hero (The Hunger Games, Snow White and the Huntsman, Wonder Woman, X-Men: Dark Phoenix), and Black representation (Black Panther, Green Book, Ma). Inverting the genre expectation in casting is the new hallmark of the Hollywood blockbuster and it’s been well received with many films cashing in at the box office. This well-intentioned and juvenile illusion of progress in mainstream cinema has been a welcomed breath of fresh air for a suffocating audience that has had to endure a bombardment of chauvinistic, cowboy architypes for almost a century. Yet this is not true change, merely a calculated decision made in boardrooms to capitalize on important cultural conversations. Not partaking in the conversation but appropriating it in the name of profit.

These capitalist-driven inversions, instead of correcting already toxic role-models and stereotypes, celebrate similar attitudes and behavior with an illusionary twist. This doesn’t add correction or commentary and rightly fails to be revolutionary or effective in any meaningful way, though it proports to do so. Within these profit-driven models an audience may have the fleeting satisfaction of seeing historically marginalized and underrepresented peoples at the forefront, not only glossed upon the one-sheet hanging in the cinema halls, but in every aspect of the defined storytelling forms we’ve come to accept from Hollywood: “The Heroes Journey”, “The Man of Action”, “The Reluctant Hero”, simply reading these narrative cardboard cutouts sparks a plethora of characters and movies to whom they are assigned.

This comparative analysis does provide a unique kind of litmus test within the American Cinema aesthetic. I don’t presume that Hollywood will grow in its perspective on the medium, thus joining the generally matured global cinema consensus, hence my critique is based on consistency. I will do this by direct comparison to works made within the same genres, including some of director Christopher Nolan’s own films, namely Inception.

This brings us to the problematic tale of Tenet, a film by plot-bending mastermind Christopher Nolan who rightly cast a Black male in the lead role of the most anticipated movie of 2020. But like the Covid-19 virus, which unexpectedly ravaged our lives that year, another contagion infiltrated Nolan’s time-warping crime-caper. A virus rarely discussed outside the context of Jim Crow South. A disease most believe would never spread beyond the Mason Dixon: Racism. Not your KKK, ”you-can’t-sit-here”, ”lynch-em’-up!”, racism. A new, deadlier variant has taken hold in the 21st century, one that permeates both conservative and liberal America. Aversive Racism. I recommend John F. Dovidio & Samuel L. Gaertner’s excellent paper “Aversive Racism” detailing the subject.

For our purposes, let’s think of Aversive Racism as someone who has internalized racist attitudes/beliefs/hierarchies but would paradoxically decry racism in all its forms. Often, they are found marching on the front lines of protests, a BLM sign in hand, screeching “Silence in Violence!” (a noble but misunderstood sentiment). Is the picture clear enough? If you feel completely lost as to how someone who calls themselves an Ally for social justice could be problematic, let alone racist, keep reading…

Tenet is a film about the theoretical possibilities of a time-relative arms trade. Buff bros with guns against buffer bros with bigger guns. If Philip K. Dick hit his head while popping ‘roids and had a decent tailor >>> Tenet. Imagine Bond. Wick. Bourne. Indiana. Our protagonist is always the smartest guy in the room. Though bloodied, bruised, and chained to a wall, we will always have confidence that our hero will outsmart and ultimately defeat the villain, seducing even the coldest heart along the way. That is the formula and the standard by which the new inversion aesthetic in Hollywood film should be critiqued. Tenet fails to pass. Subconscious decisions in script and direction in Tenet undermine the formula of these common genre adventures. Why?

The film introduces an unnamed character, played by John David Washington, who is dropped into a world he doesn’t understand while simultaneously trying to figure out how to save it from a future apocalypse. Stock and reliable setup for any Bond installment to ensure a butter fingered night of escape at the cineplex (RIP). His treatment, however, is anything but consistent. Washington’s No Name is the only man in the room without a clue. Everyone around him holds some knowledge that he is not privy to, making him appear ignorant and childish, having to be schooled at each level throughout his journey. This is inconsistent to the form. Nolan even provides a dashing white Englishman named Neil (Robert Pattinson) to guide our hapless hero on his journey. Claims that the late Christopher Hitchens was the inspiration for this character are head-scratching as Neil has nothing in common with The Hitch physically, politically, or behaviorally. Even his drink of choice was inaccurate (Hitch was a Johnny Walker man). This stock character is common. Remember Sallah (Raiders of the Lost Ark)? That’s Neil. But unlike Sallah, who provides bulk information and comic relief for Indy to ingest then act, Neil lectures Washington’s No Name scene after scene, pontificating the pseudo-physics of the plot and what they’re up against. His physical staging is also important. Many scenes feature Neil walking ahead of No Name throughout most of the movie, a visual staging that would be unthinkable in any other film of this kind. Pictorially conveying leadership, dominance, and hierarchical priority. This is inconsistent to the form.

It would seem Nolan can’t or won’t project himself onto No Name as his on-screen doppelganger (always the lead in his films), instead transferring the mantle to Neil. Like the Hitchcockian blonde in the grey suite, Nolan’s coiffed, Men’s Warehouse, spy is a post-modern doppelganger for the director, simultaneously acknowledging the past with a dollop of narcissism that echoes Dorian Grey. This dissonance creates an awkward tension between the two characters that simultaneously felt humorous and sexual.

No Name is always assuming things that are not accurate and is in constant need of education. He often acts childish, goofy, and cocky (in the less sexy sense of the term) due to his complete ignorance of the world he inhabits. Even the supporting cast of soldiers, their usual function is to fill frame and die, have more insight than No Name. While placing a protagonist into a foreign land that forces them to adapt or die is a strong catalyst for conflict, this unusual reliance on the supporting cast for information undermines the concept of the Man of Action and would never be considered acceptable except for the fact that Tenet’s lead is Black.

Let’s compare a specific Nolan film since it’s, essentially, the same movie: Inception. Can we imagine Leo DiCaprio passively being led through that world? He states at the opening of the film, “I am the best”, because he designed the dream. No Name’s equivalent would be Elliot Page’s Ariadne, a young woman with great potential at dream-making that still needs the mature voice of DiCaprio’s Cobb to unleash her true potential. Sexism in Nolan films is to be expected and deserves another essay. No Name fills the roll of Ariadne, fulfilling a common stereotype in the Hollywood tradition of Black castration. In one scene, Nolan has broken-but-strong housewife Kat (subtle) give No Name a kiss on the cheek. What could be a refreshing subversion of sexist objectification with a feminist twist becomes a humiliating rejection of the masculine with a “I like you as a friend” vibe. Her six-foot-four blonde radiance looming over Washington who apparently couldn’t find a three-step. Simultaneously reinforcing European beauty standards as paramount while visually stating the impossible divide between the two characters. Indiana would never.

In one of the most flaccid scenes in the film, No Name meets Neil in a hotel lobby. Neil slides in with a drink in hand (not Johnny Walker) and introduces himself as the idiosyncratic character we’ve come to expect. He exudes the sweaty swagger of an overworked cynic, classic to the formula. But these tropes are suspended when the waiter comes to take a drink order and Neil unilaterally denies No Name the curtesy of a friendly drink between spies, using one of the most diminutive and motherly excuses in the history of Cinema, “You don’t drink on the job.” Though it’s understood that No Name is known for staying sober, the choice to imbibe or not isn’t even considered as No Name has the choice already made for him. Neil doesn’t even offer sly commentary on the British-American schism between the two by ordering No Name a Coke, instead ordering up a Diet Coke, the consumerist symbol of a weight-watching, figure-conscious, desperation that has potential commentary in any other context except within the pseudo-Bond world our characters reside. Alcohol and its relation to masculinity and dominance is so ingrained into the cultural zeitgeist it hardly needs any reminder. James would never. This is inconsistent to the form.

But Nolan isn’t stupid, he throws a bone to No Name in the form of physical acts of violence. No Name beats the shit out bad guys (including himself), often getting caught in the process. This reinforces another stereotype: The Mandingo Fighter. The Black Stud. Good to have around if you need protection or win a bet. Yet the intellectual charisma and foreknowledge that every action hero possesses, knowing exactly what to do in any impossible situation, Nolan denies No Name. This is inconsistent to the form.

At the end of the mangled tale, it is revealed that No Name was behind everything. He kills his enemies while stating “I’m the protagonist”. Unintentionally ironic and tragically comedic. A bone for the social justice warrior in the audience who’s made to feel as if progress has been made. A 2 ½ hour highwire act of subversion and subjugation fueled by the unwillingness of a director to extend a hundred-year-old Hollywood legacy of Male Bravado to someone who does not look like himself. Like the Dorian Grey parable, something is rotten and ugly beneath the beautifully innocent façade.

Filmmaker and Theorist