What to do When Your Favorite Movie is Racist

Image by 20th Century Fox/Disney

Aliens is a modern classic, and one of the best sequels of all time. I believe that, truly. James Cameron took a deep space, isolated horror film in Alien and continued the story through the lens of heightened terror, tension and high-octane action.

I love this movie.

Aliens also seems primed for a resurgence in societal interest. This movie not only holds up as a technical achievement and masterclass in good storytelling, but it features TWO well-written and awesomely heroic women. There’s Ellen Ripley, our favorite xenomorph killer who has been lauded as one of the best characters in movie history, and there’s Private Jenette Vasquez, who is easily the single toughest “guy” in a film full of tough guys.

These to women not only rock, but they also help Aliens (albeit narrowly) pass the Bechdel Test:

  1. The movie has two named women in it.
  2. The women talk to each other.
  3. They don’t just talk to each other about the men.

Great! Aliens can be held up as a great example of a progressive film from decades ago.

Oh, but wait.

Vasquez, you know, the character with the Latinx surname with the brown skin, dark hair, and “Adios” scrawled on the side of her giant gun? She’s played by a white woman named Jenette Goldstein. Yep. Jenette was painted brown, wore dark contacts and had her hair colored to play this obviously Latina character.

Jenette Goldstein portrayed Private Jenette Vasquez in the 1986 film Aliens, directed by James Cameron.

Crap.

I really liked that movie too.

Well, you know what? You can still like it. You can still love it. It can be in your top five of all time and you can say that to all your friends. We don’t have to cancel Aliens.

Here’s what we do need to do: Acknowledge the problem. James Cameron, Gale Anne Hurd and 20th Century Fox chose to include a brown woman named Vasquez in their brilliant movie. They chose to do that. They then also chose to paint a white woman brown to play the part. Vasquez‘s cultural background has NOTHING to do with her role in the story or any of the actions she takes, yet this choice was made. It’s wanting to show diversity without actually having to do the work.

That’s not ok.

Goldstein is great in the role. She’s legitimately great. Her performance has layers and she put serious work into that physique. She played that part. And the movie already exists. Erasing it would just be erasing a great movie. If you love it. Keep loving it. But say out loud that Hollywood has had and continues to have a serious gap to cross in representation and visualization.

Unlike statues of racists that only serve to glorify the racists, Aliens actually has value as a piece of art and as a place to start a conversation about the nuances of a culture that says white is best.

For the entirety of the United States’ existence, we have lived in a society plagued by a white supremacist dominant culture. This means even the most progressive of us, even the most well-meaning, have taken actions that are informed and continue to bolster that culture. The idea that the best choice for a brown character named Vasquez is a white woman, implies it would’ve been impossible to find a Latina actress who was just as good or better for the role. That’s a problem. It doesn’t necessarily make James Cameron racist, but it does show, in his film, that he was operating within the context of a culture that taught him this was the best approach.

He was wrong… but he also made a great movie with a great performance from a great actress. All of these things can be true. And all can be acknowledge by those who believe it.

I loved Aliens. That won’t change. What can change is us, and the choices we make when crafting our next modern classic.

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Chris Paicely

Chris Paicely

Storyteller. Believer. Partner. Father. Son. Digital Creator. Marketing Strategist for the Surge Institute. Founder of StoryPaced Media.