Framing Critique, on Celluloid and Paper

Framing Critique, on Celluloid and Paper

[Alonso Gurmendi Dunkelberg is a Departmental Lecturer in International Relations at the University of Oxford, in association with Somerville College, as well as Visiting Professor at University of Michigan, at Ann Arbor.]

*Spoiler Warning for Avatar (2009), Prey (2022) and The Woman King (2022)

Hollywood is very (very) white. According to recent figures by the consulting firm McKinsey, “less than 6 percent of the writers, directors, and producers of US-produced films are Black.” This is compounded by structural issues: “Black talent tends to be shut out of projects unless senior team members are Black.” Moreover, Insider Magazine notes that “only 6.3% of [Oscar] nominations went to Black creatives, while 2.6% went to Latinx people and 1.4% went to Asian people.”

As a result, most movies produced in Hollywood have adopted white and Western frames of reference for their storylines and characters. In fact, even when the movies discuss stories involving Black, Indigenous and/or other ethnic minority characters, they tend to fall in the “White Saviour” trope, where a white person is “the great leader who saves blacks from slavery or oppression, rescues people of color from poverty and disease, or leads Indians in battle for their dignity and survival.” Dances with Wolves (1990), The Last Samurai (2003), Green Book (2018) and many others are famous examples of “White Saviour” cinema.

Take the case of Avatar (2009). In it, humans have discovered the proverbial inter-stellar goldmine, filled with “Unobtanium”—the most valuable mineral in existence. The problem is that this new human colony has an indigenous population of cat-looking humanoid aliens called the Na’vi. Corporate shills, like CEO Parker Selfridge (played by Giovanni Ribisi), and his mercenary backup, Colonel Miles Quaritch (played by Stephen Lang), are looking for a way to get rid of the Na’vi, take their land, and exploit their resources. Jake Sully (played by Sam Worthington) is offered the chance to transfer his consciousness into a genetic hybrid human-Na’vi “avatar” to gain the trust of the aliens and use this knowledge to conquer them.

Like in many white saviour stories, Sully ends up falling in love with an indigenous princess (Neytiri, played by Zoe Saldaña) and learns to appreciate the “noble ways” of the Na’vi “savages” as a purer version of political organisation. After leading them to victory against Quaritch’s forces, Jake transfers his consciousness to his avatar, presumably becoming the new clan leader. As the white saviour, Sully serves as the spectator’s eyes and ears as he “crosses the color and culture line”, serving as their window into a new and exoticized world. As Hughley notes, “the point of the journey is not its completion”—in fact, we never actually see whatever happens to the Na’vi after the destruction of their homeland—“but what the central characters discover about themselves and their culture along the way.”

Recently, a few productions have made the decision to change this frame of reference, focusing instead on Black and Indigenous main characters who propel the story not as supporting characters, but through their own agency and struggles. In Prey (2022), a young Comanche woman has to protect her community against a Predator alien, the same fictional species famously fought by Arnold Schwarzenegger in Predator (1987). In The Woman King (2022), a group of fierce female warriors from the Kingdom of Dahomey, in West Africa, have to defend their land from the rival Oyo, a nation allied to European and Brazilian slavers.

In both of these stories, instead of appearing as saviours, white men appear only briefly, as second-level villains. The protagonists in both films, Naru (played by Amber Midthunder) in Prey and Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu) and Nanisca (played by Viola Davis) in The Woman King, have realistic and personal problems—they have absolutely no need to teach a white man about the colours of the wind. Comanche gender roles have relegated Naru, a skilled huntress, to the role of healer. She instead yearns for a chance to prove herself as a hunter. When her community is attacked by a Predator alien, Naru and her brother Taabe set out to defeat him. Ultimately, Naru uses her skills to outwit her foe and save her community. In The Woman King, Nanisca, the seemingly unstoppable leader of the fearsome Agojie all-female elite military unit, suffers post-traumatic stress from having to face the Oyo general who raped her in her youth. Nawi, in turn, is abandoned by her father after she refuses to be sold to a husband many years her elder and is enrolled in the Agojie, where she struggles to find her place and identity among her new sisters.

Both of these films share stories where the main characters challenge the status quo: from dismissed healer to respected huntress, from child bride to powerful warrior. The journey is theirs. Instead of serving as spirit guide to their white saviour, they have flaws, qualities, strengths, and weaknesses, they have character arcs, wants and needs, and agency in their own futures. And this is not by accident. The very decision to change the frame of reference changes the outcome of the movie’s message. Imagine, instead, a story like The Woman King narrated not from the perspective of Nawi or Nanisca, but from the perspective of a white slaver as he discovers the error of his ways and falls in love with Nawi, the exotic female warrior, Avatar-style. The message of the movie would stop being one of Black and female empowerment. It would be a story of slaver self-discovery.

These kinds of framing decisions are important not only for filmmaking, but for our own research as international legal scholars. In fact, if the conventional history of international law that floods the introductory chapters of most classic textbooks were a movie, it would have a distinctly white-saviour-y flair. International Law (1539) is a movie about how a wise white man from Salamanca, Francisco de Vitoria, created the concept of the international to account for the recent encounter of “noble savages” in the Americas. As Anghie recalls, international law’s traditional approaches “characterize Vitoria as extending and applying existing juridical doctrines developed in Europe to determine the legal status of the Indians.” Thus, through colonialism, international law allegedly created a common language for Western and non-Western communities to speak to each other. As stated in the 2012 (!!) edition of Ian Brownlie’s Principles, international law “travelled with the colonizers to the Americas, to Asia, to Africa and eventually to Oceania.” In this story, the system “gradually came to incorporate other states as they reached the appropriate ‘standard of civilization’, or, as more recent language would have it, as they entered the state system or decolonized and became independent.”

This is a very top-down plot. It conceives colonisation as a favour for otherwise barbaric peoples and decolonisation as a gracious concession by proud “teachers” who already succeeded in their civilising mission. Not only is there no agency on the part of those who fought for independence against colonial forces, but this fight is obscured by a reverse trope of the white saviour (or, perhaps, more accurately, the Western saviour) who instead of “crossing the colour and culture line”, expects gratitude for replacing indigenous culture with Western “civilisation” and “modernity”.

We’ve seen examples of this “movie” trickle down to popular discourse and national debates, from the most official looking statement to the most mundane of viral tweets. Deciding how we frame the screenplay of international law is to decide whether we contribute to this broader cultural discourse or not.

This is where International Law, the remake, comes into play. This new version, as James Thuo Gathii explains, “brought the colonial encounter between Europeans and non-Europeans to the center (…) challenging the complacency in international law to treat the colonial legacy as dead letter, overcome by the process of decolonization.” In this effort to refocus international law, several key themes have played an important role. Gathii notes, for instance, that this approach foregrounds “the significance of resistance and protest as factors in the expansion, consolidation, and renewal of international institutions.” Writings like those of Ratna Kapur and Balakrishnan Rajagopal are clear examples of “writing Third World resistance into international law.” Likewise, Anibal Quijano and Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui have explained the ways in which coloniality continues to affect modern-day postcolonial states.

Beyond the theme of resistance, though, an equally important theme of “historical re-examination” was central to the project. As Pitts notes, “the revitalization of historical interest in a field that had long lacked it has also entailed a radical challenge to international law’s identity as an emancipatory project with an essentially European genealogy.” This so-called “turn” to history in international law has been extremely important. Instead of a white saviour, Vitoria became the story’s antagonist. As Anghie argued in his seminal Imperialism, Sovereignty and the Making of International Law, Vitoriaonly “appear[ed] to promote notions of equality and reciprocity between the Indians and the Spanish”—while in reality advocating a “scheme” that “endorses and legitimizes endless Spanish incursions into Indian society” through the manipulation of European natural law arguments.  

The increased attention to history, however, does not come without its pitfalls. In the search for an international law of emancipation, critique risks being “organised along the very lines set by the linear historical narratives which they seek to question and disrupt.” In other words, the risk is that critique will simply bring about the replacement of a linear history of progress for a linear history of oppression, where the frame of reference will continue to be anchored in the West’s atrocities—the cruelty of Parker Selfridge and Miles Quaritch, not the bravery of Neytiri, Nawi, or Naru.

This is a common South-to-North critique. Chilean scholar Fernando Pérez Godoy, for instance, has argued that often postcolonial scholarship “is thinking about the European powers’ arbitrary use of the civilizing argument against the peripheral and semi-peripheral nations.” This, he says, “reduces the history of international law to a Völkerrechtsgeschichte der Opfer” (and international law of victims) and “places the South American legal space as part of the history of the abusers, crimes, arbitrariness and, recently, the destruction of the natural environment perpetrated by Europe’s colonial expansion.” But this is not how the history of (neo)colonialism evolved in Latin America, where, as he points out, imperial logics were “co-created”. Latin republics often embraced European rules and deployed them against their own indigenous peoples. As Gathii advices, we must “not have a false notion of third world innocence and first world guilt or dominance.”     

Therefore, any critique framed solely around a predetermined dynamic between an oppressed “periphery/semi-periphery” and an oppressor European “cosmopolitan core” will, in my mind, be an incomplete one. The history of international law, framed from the Global South, needs to be told through the framing device of the Global South’s own class, race, gender hierarchies, and prejudices. It is entirely possible for Global South practices and theories to be as (neo)colonial as those that come from the Global North.

In fact, this predetermined dynamic risks the pitfalls of what Gathii called “contributionism”—i.e. the idea that despite its exclusion and despite the unfairness of the colonial system, the Global South managed to “improve” or “humanise” international law, just by virtue of contributing from the Global South. In the end, the idea that critique consists of solely finding the “hidden and benign contributions” of every single Global Southerner to the otherwise oppressive, colonial, and violent European international legal project, rather reinforces international law’s alleged status as a neutral universal language. Thus, as Argentinean scholar Justina Uriburu aptly points out, “contributionist accounts are analytically deficient as they rewrite (semi-)peripheral participation in international law’s allegedly universal history and all too often spare international law’s mercantilist and imperialist character.” As with the white saviour tales of Hollywood, the focus of contributionist stories is to make the Global North think about the cruelty of international law and teach it to paint with all the colours of the wind.

Take, for instance, the classic contributionist case-study of the uti possidetis principle. The doctrine is widely considered the region’s most well-known “contribution” to international law. As is widely known, the principle stated that newly independent states possess the same territory that belonged to the colonial power, effectively protecting the stability of borders and preventing other states from “re-colonising” or “occupying” an allegedly new “territorium nullius”. The general appreciation is that uti possidetis was a “reasonable and peaceful solution” to the problem of borders, in that it avoided arguments of effective occupation and, ultimately, war, as the dispute resolution mechanism for 19th century Latin American borders.  

Seen from the perspective of a core-periphery dynamic, uti possidetis appears to be an innovative and peace-oriented contribution from the oppressed Global Southerners to improve the core’s international legal project. But this framing erases the internal dynamics of Latin American independence. As Charles Walker points out, writing about Peruvian independence, early republican attitudes did not conceive the country’s vast indigenous population as part of the citizenry. Instead, the republic was founded on the continuity of colonial practices and the conception of “the Indian” as “a different social category with different rights and obligations.” Uti possidetis, therefore, was meant to protect the existing sovereign rights of the dominant (white and mestizo) republican elites, not indigenous populations, who had no recognised legal theory to protect their own territorial claims over vast areas of land, that were often never even occupied by European colonisers, which in turn explains the fragility of their current situation.

There is, however, a history of resistance to this neocolonial dispossession—often times a violent and revolutionary one. Again, following Walker, “even when excluded from mainstream social movements and parties, Indians utilized different means to defend their rights, including those rights they believed they had earned with independence.” These histories of resistance are nowhere to be found in international legal literature, even if they are the direct expression of the struggle for decolonisation/decoloniality of Westphalian sovereignty, as well as a direct and more radical antecedent to the current indigenous rights movement, which focuses on international treaties and human rights tribunals.   

Through this post, therefore, I want to call upon our community to not lose sight of the issue of framing historical critique of international law, to produce a re-examination of history that tells the story not from Quaritchs of international law and their cruelty, but of the resistance of our discipline’s Nawis, Naniscas, and Narus.

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Featured, General, Public International Law, Symposia, Themes
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