Representation and Madness in Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One

“In the new reckoning, a hundred percent of the world was mad” – Mark Spitz in Colson Whitehead, Zone One

“If you can’t fix what’s broken, you’ll go insane” – Mad Max in Mad Max Fury Road

For the last few semesters I’ve been teaching Colson Whitehead’s zombie novel Zone One in my Introduction to American Literature classes.  The novel is often a bit frustrating for students to read because the plot is virtually nonexistent until the last third or quarter of the the novel.  However, Whitehead’s depiction of this post-apocalyptic world is beautiful and breathtaking, especially as he describes a human race that’s denying its own fall into madness as they try in vain to return to a time before zombies, called “stragglers” and “skels” in this novel, came to reclaim this world.

The world has ended and the novel starts during the days of its reconstruction.  Mark Spitz, the novel’s protagonist who works in Zone One with other teams to sweep resettled parts of Manhattan for remaining skels and stragglers, muses on how, “big groups were in again: the elite antsy to drop their pawns, and the pawns hungry for purpose after so long without instructions…” (88).  Although seemingly well-protected settlements survive to reestablish a society that mirrors the culture, politics, and capitalism that we once knew, humanity is devouring itself outside of those barricades.  And within, the survivors struggle to keep their PASD (Post-Apocalyptic Survivor Dysfunction) at bay.

Despite the clear differences in the setting and the conditions between Zone One and the 2015 Mad Max reboot Mad Max Fury Road, there are fascinating similarities in the stories they tell about the madness that rises, who survives, and what institutions remain and are toppled after the apocalypse.  Max, like Whitehead’s protagonist Mark Spitz, is surviving in a post-apocalyptic world, except he cannot kept his madness away.  It helps him survive.  Visions of the dead haunt and protect him against the uncontrolled villainy of the War Boys who serve King Immortan Joe, a tyrant who has his people clamoring for every drip of water he deigns to give them. Like Mark Spitz, Mad Max reflects that “As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy.  Me…or everyone else.”

Notably, despite the chaos that these worlds have fallen into and the new orders that arise, both Mad Max Fury Road and Zone One contemplate the survival of the status quo, specifically class, gender, and racial inequality as well, all of which are pose just as much threat as zombies and Immortan Joe and the War Boys.

In the face of all this, representation and agency become important in how these stories are told.  Whitehead reveals towards the end of Zone One that the protagonist and narrator of the story is black, making his madness and ability to survive, his suspicions about the institutions that will return, and his place in this new world take on a different meaning.  He begins to identify with the zombies coming to reclaim “the broken city” and to feel that for the first time in his life, this broken world is finally his for the taking…if he can continue to live.

Mad Max Fury Road is a film that’s just as much about the madness of Charlize Theron’s Imperator Furiosa as it about Max’s own mental instability in a world where everyone has lost their minds.  Her madness and those of the Immortan Joe’s five wives, whom she smuggles out of his tyrannical desert compound, calls them to action and to fight every insurmountable challenge to the death.  In her wake, Max escapes his own captivity from one of the War Boys, Nicolas Holt’s Nux, and both he and Nux are inspired to help Furiosa and her fellow female road warriors fight Immortan Joe’s economic and patriarchal tyranny.  Faced with the insanity of the wasteland that surrounds them Furiosa tells Max, “You never gonna have a better chance [at] redemption.”

It seems that there’s always a ongoing, unending conversation about the threat of racialized bodies and female bodies and how to regulate, punish, and legislate those bodies to keep society safe.  In Mark Spitz, the zombies, Furiosa and her road warriors, those black and female bodies are allowed to go mad with power in these texts.  They fight, they rage, they go crazy and they kill to take back their land and liberate themselves.  They don’t destroy the world, but they try to make new places for themselves and others to own and in which they can live freely.  What a time to be alive.

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The Persistence of Black Invisibility: Darren Wilson and the Invisible Man

I was on Tumblr today and saw someone post an article from Popular Science by Rafi Letzter, “What Science Tells Us About Darren Wilson and Michael Brown: What Does It Mean for a Black Teen to be a Demon” that discusses Darren Wilson’s depiction of Michael Brown moments before deciding to shoot him.  It briefly analyzed the persistent history of seeing black people or in this case the black body as superhuman or as a superhuman threat.

According to excerpts from Wilson’s account posted in the article and heard in various ways in mainstream media recently, Wilson believed Brown “was almost bulking up to run through the shots.”  A few months ago, I ended a post asking, “What was the threat in this situation and what was this officer Darren Wilson fearful of?  When and why does it appear that fear itself is justification enough killing someone else?  Fear is at the root of these very broad questions, but I start with fear because it is that emotion that allows us to determine how and to what lengths we protect ourselves and who we believe is worth protecting, especially within our national borders or local communities.”

I suppose Wilson’s comments are my answer.  Brown stopped being human in Wilson’s eyes, whether he knew it or not.  Wilson protected himself against not a man but a powerful villain who could somehow run through bullets and would get madder and more powerful the more Wilson shot at him.  Wilson felt like a five-year old child despite being 6′ 4″ and 210 lbs. Despite the fact that Brown, at 300 lbs, was the same height.  What Wilson describes sounds like a nightmare.  In this narrative, Wilson is allowed to express his fear and while Brown is an unfeeling, unafraid, Hulk.  Wilson is a person with feelings and interiority who can only continue to live only if Brown does not.  We do not get to hear if, no matter how terrifying Brown was to Wilson, Brown, too, showed any fear in his last moments, only that he was terrifying, unstoppable, and then subdued only by lethal force.

This article concludes that Wilson might not even know that he has attributed superhuman traits to Brown and, as Letzter reminds us, “the insidious truth of prejudice…is that it can emerge unbidden in an instant, and vanish moments later without ever bubbling to the surface of conscious intent.”

Two nights ago, I was skimming the Prologue to Invisible Man since I taught excerpts from that novel this semester, and I think these last few lines say more on this subject, not from a traditional scientific standpoint, but a literary one.  I want to conclude this brief post with what in 1945 Ralph Ellison writes about being what it means for a black man to be seen as a demon 70 years ago and what it might still mean today:

“I am an invisible man…I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me…When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything except me.  Nor is my invisibility exactly a matter of a bio-chemical accident to my epidermis.  That invisibility to which I refer occurs because of a peculiar disposition in the eyes of those with whom I come in contact.  A matter of the construction of their inner eyes, those eyes with which they look through their physical eyes upon reality…You wonder whether you aren’t simply a phantom in other people’s minds.  Say, a figure in a nightmare which the sleeper tries with all his strength to destroy.” 

The Poetics and Politics of Race and Space: A Few Thoughts on Ferguson and Fictional Representations of Missouri

A few weeks ago, I concluded my last post with some questions I had about Ferguson, Michael Brown and the dialogue surrounding his death, law enforcement in that region, and fear as the possible root cause of this kind of violence.  Last week I had the opportunity to write a blog post, “Framing Ferguson: A Time for Mourning and Action,” for George Washington University’s American Literature and Culture Organization (ALCO) in response to a panel the university held that brought students and faculty together to discuss a variety of topics ranging from racial and economical tensions and inequalities to policing and public policy.

The panel also proceeded my course’s reading of Mark Twain’s Pudd’nhead Wilson (1894). Last week, the students in my Introduction to American Literature course started reading Mark Twain’s novel set in the fictional, slave-holding small town of Dawson’s Landing which Twain locates “on the Missouri side of the Mississippi, half a day’s journey, per steamboat, to St. Louis” (Twain 3). Twain places Missouri as a site of “historical contradictions” (Gillman 448). These contradictions involve the actions and identities of the characters in the town as well as the laws by which they live and customs they value. As Susan Gillman explains in “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson,” “the novel detects a central ambiguity suppressed in law, if not custom, by slave society” leaving us to ask ourselves, “How do we know…who is to be held accountable under the law and who is not? …How do we know what we know is true?” (449).

These questions feel eerily relevant today. I’m left with questions about what fictions exist about Missouri, its pivotal role as a border state in shaping United States’ history of slavery and race, and how those fictions compare, if at all, with the realities that we might know about that state today. I look forward to discussing and exploring some of these comparisons and aforementioned contradictions in a more in depth way in the future.

Works Cited:

Twain, Mark. Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.

Gillman, Susan. “‘Sure Identifiers’: Race, Science, and the Law in Pudd’nhead Wilson.” Pudd’nhead Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins: Authoritative Texts, Textual Introd. and Tables of Variants, Criticism. Ed. Sidney E. Berger. 2nd ed. New York: Norton, 2005. Print.