With its release date nearing, everyone's talking about Resident Evil 5, but not everyone's talking about it for reasons you might think. The latest in Capcom's phenomenally successful zombie action series has led some commentators to call it racist. Why? Let's go through the alleged reasons one by one:
1: You play Chris Redfield, a white American agent of the Bioterrorism Security Assessment Alliance (BSAA), who is sent to Africa to investigate an incident in the desert. Sheva is his half African, half European companion, who is playable co-operatively. Chris and Sheva end up killing countless black infected Africans as the story unfolds.
2: Early on in the game a group of black Africans are seen beating a bag with a body inside. When Chris approaches them they stop, the bag is motionless and they stare menacingly at Chris. There is no suggestion that the men are infected.
3: A white woman is seen dragged kicking and screaming from a balcony into a room by a man who is not obviously black. This scene has been misreported in some previews as featuring the woman being dragged into a room by "black men". Inside the room, Chris and Sheva find her infected and are forced to kill her, along with some infected black men.
4: The game's third level features a Native Village set in a marshland. This area is home to a number of infected black Africans who are wearing traditional African dress, including ornate headdress, and carry weapons including spears. Some are much larger than normal. Chris and Sheva kill a large number of infected here as they attempt to progress through the plot.
So far the debate over Resident Evil 5's alleged racism has been woefully misinformed, with no expert opinion called upon for comment. We showed the first three levels of the game to Glenn Bowman, Senior Lecturer at the Department of Anthropology at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and asked him if he thought Resident Evil 5 was racist.
VideoGamer.com: Is Resident Evil 5 racist?
Glenn Bowman: My sense is that it's a very good conglomeration or mimic of a whole series of cultural things. The number of film references I could pick up, and novel references, everything from le Carré's The Constant Gardener to The Matrix. It's quite surprising how much is in there. My sense is if you're going to set a zombie film in Africa you're going to have African zombies. The other thing I think is much more organising of the scenario and the racism is the whole terrorism, post 9/11 anxieties about alterity about other cultures. So that original scene-setting, which involves guys beating on the pupae-like sack is certainly straight out of Black Hawk Down. It's about saying this is dangerous territory, this is a space where you're not at home, it's frightening. Black Hawk Down probably is more racist than this is in some ways. I don't find this very racist. I think what they're trying to do is make a setting of terror, of anxiety. We could go back to the mention of that one scene you claim that people were using as a sign of racism, where supposedly a blonde white woman is being dragged into a second floor house to be raped - it looked like to be raped. Well there's a couple of problems there. One is she wasn't being dragged in to be raped, she was being dragged in to be infected. And secondly the person who dragged her in is not black. Maybe there is an awareness by the makers of the game that there is a problem with a threat of racism and therefore they've diluted that problem by bringing in a number of white characters. Maybe they're simply working on the threat scenario. Certainly the presence of a lot of white characters, one) diffuses the idea that it's explicitly racist, but it also suggests they know it might be accused of being racist and possibly that's why they're doing it.
I would like to set up as a counter-thematic, there's a very interesting anti-colonial thematic running through it. This whole idea of the victimisation of Africa by pharmaceutical companies, by terrorist groups, all of whom seem to be run by white characters who are coming in and exploiting people. There's the diary left behind by the kid who's eventually infected (found on a table in the Native Village section), which points out very clearly that in the past the colonials came in and exploited the local people, ripped them off of stuff, damaged them. He says that maybe they came back to give us this immunisation because they felt guilty. There's something quite interesting going on with that. The fact that they actually came back to screw them up once again and infect them with this virus or disease, seems to me to be far more damning of the colonial powers towards Africa than it says anything about whether or not blacks are some sort of savages. The blacks here are clearly being set up as victims, alterity, frightening. Yes there are themes you can say might be somewhat racist but you know that's also about making you scared.
VideoGamer.com: You say there are themes that might be somewhat racist, is that simply because you are killing black people in Africa?
GB: It's the fact that what they're using to make you feel under threat is largely a series of black faces and then motifs of African masks and the like. It is about using Africa as threat, but they've got to use somewhere as threat, and as far as I know from what you've told me the last game used rural Spain as threat. Basically if you want to make a frightening scene you take whatever characteristics of that scene are salient and turn them align. So you get vicious Spaniards who I suspect are running around with knives or whatever. Here you get infected Africans. Maybe they'll make the next game happen in Finland and you'll have a whole series of Inuits and the like being really scary and running around with Walrus heads on. I think it's silly to call it racist.