The problem with Marvel’s diversity problems (Part 7 of 6,182)

This piece is an elaboration of a thread on twitter found here.

DArZikRXgAEyyHO.jpgOn March 31st, Marvel’s Senior Vice President of Sales and Marketing, David Gabriel intimated that diversity was responsible for Marvel’s declining comics sales. A clarifying note was added to the interview after a swift backlash. The note explained that Gabriel was drawing from disgruntled retailers and not an official evaluation of the success or failure of certain kinds of comics by the institution. However, both the original comments and the apologetic explanation reveal inherent pitfalls in the way Marvel thinks about its characters who are not straight white men. Euphemisms and code words lubricate Marvel’s messages, as the company tries to appeal to fans without seriously challenging its institutional racism.

We can leave aside the issue of what exactly has led to Marvel’s declining sales (much of which is outlined in this Atlantic article by Asher Elbein), but it’s illuminating to trace the shape, as much as the content, of Marvel’s diversity discussions. In his initial statements, Gabriel responded to a question of how tastes had changed in a way that had impacted the company’s revenues:

“I don’t know if that’s a question for me.  I think that’s a better question for retailers who are seeing all publishers.  What we heard was that people didn’t want any more diversity.  They didn’t want female characters out there.  That’s what we heard, whether we believe that or not.  I don’t know that that’s really true, but that’s what we saw in sales.

We saw the sales of any character that was diverse, any character that was new, our female characters, anything that was not a core Marvel character, people were turning their nose up against.  That was difficult for us because we had a lot of fresh, new, exciting ideas that we were trying to get out and nothing new really worked.”

A glance at the phrasing, separate from the qualitative assessments they accompany, is instructive: Gabriel identifies two kinds of comic book titles, the ones about “any character that was diverse” which are defined by contrast as “anything that was not a core Marvel character.” But diversity is a feature of a set, not of an individual (a handful of skittles can be diverse, but a single skittle cannot). In the first phrase, we can identify “diverse” as used to describe a character, it stands in for more explicit characteristics that cannot be articulated without trouble. It doesn’t make sense to say that, for example, Kamala Khan is diverse; she’s just not a white man. As Sara Ahmed summarizes in the introduction of her 2007 paper “The Language of Diversity,” when attached to individuals, diversity inscribes difference onto bodies. [Differently] raced and [differently] gendered, those bodies become delineated by that difference. Defined in juxtaposition from the unspoken not-different — whiteness.

In the same paper, Ahmed works through bell hooks to identify how diversity becomes something to be owned and a boon for multicultural institutions. Diversity is “celebrated,” “consumed,” and “embraced” when it adds “spice and colour” without disturbing institutional power. For Marvel, non-whiteness primarily exists at the fictional level. Characters and coloring obscure the white hands that draw them and the white minds that think them. Diversity, for Marvel, is not achieved by the inclusion of staff and artists of color, as it might in another industry. Comics diversity is not fostering underrepresented creative voices, but a tailoring at the level of product. When artists and writers of color are brought in for those characters, it is an externality, not the aim. Diversity is a mandate that flows from the bottom line through to the institution’s internal machinations. Consuming the Other is just good business.

The addendum, which came soon after the interview was published, was an attempt to realign the business model. It is a message aimed to pacify comic fans of color, but also include those distressed by diversity. A sort of mea culpa for Gabriel’s interview response, the explanatory note is more measured and slick than the initial response. As with the original comments, sensitivity to the language’s shapes registers a dichotomy around diversity:

Note:  Marvel’s David Gabriel reached out to correct the statement above:  “Discussed candidly by some of the retailers at the summit, we heard that some were not happy with the false abandonment of the core Marvel heroes and, contrary to what some said about characters “not working,” the sticking factor and popularity for a majority of these new titles and characters like Squirrel Girl, Ms. Marvel, The Mighty Thor, Spider-Gwen, Miles Morales, and Moon Girl, continue to prove that our fans and retailers ARE excited about these new heroes. And let me be clear, our new heroes are not going anywhere! We are proud and excited to keep introducing unique characters that reflect new voices and new experiences into the Marvel Universe and pair them with our iconic heroes.

“We have also been hearing from stores that welcome and champion our new characters and titles and want more!  They’ve invigorated their own customer base and helped them grow their stores because of it.  So we’re getting both sides of the story and the only upcoming change we’re making is to ensure we don’t lose focus of our core heroes.”

Characters that are not white men are called “new heroes” and “unique characters” that “reflect new voices and new experiences.” While the note’s content expresses enthusiasm for these titles, they are again defined in juxtaposition to “our iconic heroes”/“our core heroes.”  The new/unique/diverse characters are not organic; they need to be introduced and integrated “into the Marvel Universe” and paired with those iconic/core heroes. Marvel never loses sight of the necessity of reassuring readers that it will not “lose focus” on those iconic/core heroes. Gabriel does not need to articulate that the introduction of characters of color threaten the iconic/core, even as he promises that Marvel will handle the integration in ways do not shift the company’s focus. Otherness is defined not just in contrast but as threat to the core/iconic Marvel identity.

The dichotomy that’s felt even when Marvel is celebrating diversity is not accidental. Euphemism and code are used to send multiple messages simultaneously. We can identify core/iconic as terms that shroud what is rendered unspeakable.

The prospect of articulating and calling attention to the hegemonic whiteness of Marvel as a corporation (and comic books as an industry) generates anxiety in Gabriel. It also generates anxiety in the retailers who express fear that white male characters are being sidelined for titles that appeal to “unique” fans with “new experiences.” Therefore, the language gestures but doesn’t name the qualities that define core/iconic. To name whiteness would upend institutional innocence. Core/iconic, then, is not just a shroud, it’s also an alibi. It is a retrofitted rationale for the continued centering (or “focus”) of white male narratives and perspectives.

Whether consciously or unconsciously, the risk of the shroud’s falling generates anxiety in the those with institutional power (both in Marvel and the comics industry as a whole). Naming whiteness would reveal the shallowness of white supremacy in the comics industry as not accident, meritocracy, or just business, but built and upheld through a monopoly of resources and publishing capital. This anxiety generates the language that is used to discuss new titles that center heroes of color. Euphemisms such as diverse/unique or core/iconic pass as harmless to undiscerning comic fans, but are decoded by white male retailers in specific ways. They offer reassurance that the hegemonic whiteness of Marvel storytelling will not be challenged.

A statement

These past few weeks I have been hesitant to finalize ideas into blogs posts because I fear that I haven’t understood or studied enough. I have to be deliberate about publishing. One post does not have to be a final word on a topic (perfectly considered, nuanced, and informed). One post can be an installment, a place-holder, and maybe a brainstorm. Best to capture the lighting when it strikes than to defer, endlessly.

IMG_20170602_211155749.jpg

scribbling

This blog exists to keep me accountable. I’ve been trying to write more in the past year. Honestly, I’ve been trying to write more for the past two years. And I don’t want to call it a failure, but what I have mostly done is not writing – it’s scribbling.

I’ve done a lot of scribbling in notebooks. I’ve etched stray thoughts, I’ve made lists, vague outlines, and variations on those vague outlines. I’ve scratched out stray paragraphs for different pieces in different notebooks, hoping to one day tape them together.

This blog exists for the taping together. For gathering thoughts and words into one place, and hopefully fitting them together in ways that are interesting. If the posts are not interesting, at least, they will be real, and they will be mine.

 

What is @Nihilist_Arbys selling?

@Nihilist_Arbys emerged in January 2015 as a response to fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter. Established by musician, blogger, and copywriter Brendan Kellyy, the twitter account takes a simple form: a morbid, but deadpan, quip about the lack of meaning or grim prospects for humanity/ earth followed by “Enjoy Arby’s” or some variation. The account seems like the internet’s natural response to corporate infestations of social media. It also turns on the premise of advertising. Everything around the slogan, prompting you to “Eat Arby’s” — ranging from blunt nihilism to fatalistic poetry — is just dressing. It bares both the impotence of advertising’s promise and the crude arrangement of most fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter.

Originally published on medium.com on October 18, 2016.

“Has my Explore feed been gentrified?”
[Aria Dean, “Poor Meme, Rich Meme” , Real Life Mag, 2016.]

“In this age where the very idea of the public is dissolving as we speak, we are all expected to be entrepreneurs of our own bodies. Expected to become businesses.”
[Lester Spence, “If Tolkien were alive he’d be a hustler”, 2011]

Good tweets copy, great tweets steal

If we haul Kate Losse’s analysis of how absurdist twitter comedy (“weird twitter”) and corporate social media presence commingle in a phenomenon she calls “Weird Corporate Twitter” to present day, we might find that little has changed. The relationship between advertising and social media has become distended. Since 2014, twitter has only grown in importance as a site of #content generation, information dissemination — both frivolous and for organizing projects — and one of the most innovative topographies for internet humor.

Social media accounts for (particularly, fast food) companies, are deeply invested in developing a “voice,” whether or not they actively engage in memes. @Whataburger frequently uses “I” statements (which actually creates a strangely disassociated dynamic between the restaurant and twitter account), that much simpler to retweet when you agree. @Arbys (the official account) uses sandwich boxes, condiments, and other menu items in pop culture-relevant origami and craft displays. @DennysDiner, the main object of Losse’s analysis, remains more aware of twitter trends than most of my friends. With every new meme, I imagine Denny’s has a crack team ready to disassemble and repurpose it as a marketing tool. The Diner retains the remixing of memes, offering followers the pleasure of recognition or getting the reference, and morose ruminations on life that prompt followers to ask the restaurant if it’s ok.

@Nihilist_Arbys emerged in January 2015 as a response to fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter. Established by musician, blogger, and copywriter Brendan Kellyy, the twitter account takes a simple form: a morbid, but deadpan, quip about the lack of meaning or grim prospects for humanity/ earth followed by “Enjoy Arby’s” or some variation. The account seems like the internet’s natural response to corporate infestations of social media. It also turns on the premise of advertising. Everything around the slogan, prompting you to “Eat Arby’s” — ranging from blunt nihilism to fatalistic poetry — is just dressing. It bares both the impotence of advertising’s promise and the crude arrangement of most fast food and restaurant chains’ use of twitter.


No honor among memes

These corporate twitter accounts, like IHOP, Whataburger, and Denny’s, have a wide reach, frequently achieving thousands of retweets. Trying to identify the factors of success in corporate twitter, Losse cites a “sociopathic freedom” that comes from seeing corporations engage trending topics and “alienation” from contemporary life like a clever teen or millennial might.

But not all of us think it’s cute. The remixing of memes haven’t become less creative, but their circulation is as stale as it is dependable. Shallow examination reveals even the funniest post as an ad, a ploy for your (and your stomach’s) attention. Corporate memes must always contort themselves to justify their presence on our timelines, masking the promotion behind borrowed comedic scaffolding.

It’s not just, as Laur M. Jackson points out, the “process of popularity” that must smooth the “unique, inventive” edges of the memetic object, polished into another adornment. Or that any meme that balloons into the stratosphere of mainstream coverage eventually pops under pressure. In corporate twitter, the remixing is telegraphed, viral humor evacuated of specificity and the personal[ity]. Stuffed and mounted in the living room for our admiration, the poses are always the same; for Denny’s it’s eggs and pancakes, for Whataburger a cheeseburger, and we are never surprised.

There are legitimate reasons to recoil at corporate twitter’s attempts at relevance, especially when they mark the final frontier of online appropriation of Black vernacular and Black cool. Just a few months after “Weird Corporate Twitter” was published, Pia Glenn critiqued IHOP and other companies for donning AAVE (African-American Vernacular English) as marketing strategies without context or accountability. Glenn argues that IHOP’s tweeting practices fashion Black culture as “disposable,” reduced to a tool for a “clever tweet.” The circulation of Blackness on the internet is something that has been covered beyond my capabilities by Laur M. Jacksonand Aria Dean; their analyses teach us to read how memes and appropriation make manifest the ways Blackness becomes currency online.

All Natural 100% Grass Fed non-GMO Memes

But even the less blatantly colonial corporate twitter is a “cringeworthy affair”that “bucks anything like the kind of in-group “it me” commonality of memes” and make them (nearly) endlessly versatile and shareable. It is a kind of “parasitism” that seeks to evade exposure by being more relevant, more up-to-date, more sheep’s clothing. As memes spiral into the hands of publications and social media interns, they begin to surrender form. Too much fondling dulls them down. Each iteration made for mass appeal is more sanitized, less full of potential for subversion or controversy. Efforts to make a joke palatable to all leave us with something bland and tasteless.

Perhaps we’re looking for authenticity in fallow ground. If corporate appropriation arrives with dependable frequency, it’s folly to hold on to objects as sacred at all. As Dean argues:

“The labor of online content production is done with hopes of an audience in mind; memes are created for the very purpose of virality and, by extension, appropriation. Memes move in cycles of production, appropriation, consumption, and reappropriation that render any idea of a pre-existing authentic collective being hard to pin down.”

On the internet, nothing is sacred/everything is shared. And if we see defilement, we should check our fingers.


@Nihilist_Arbys gazes into the abyss of social media advertising

I guarantee you nothing in this sandwich has ever seen a smoker.

This is why a parody of fast food twitter is the perfect analogy. (Well, almost. Dammit, why is someone just squandering @TacoHell). Though @Nihilist_Arbys could theoretically substitute any restaurant, it’s fittingly attached to one that purports to sell us Brisket that looks like pre-packaged lunch meat.

Arby’s, it seems, isn’t really trying. And @Nihilist_Arbys “taps[s] into the emotional state” of the kind of customers the sandwich peddler must attract. But we could also call it the “emotional state” that underlies all fast food advertising, and social media strategies that taste like Taco Bell “beef”.

https://twitter.com/nihilist_arbys/status/625357875439882240

If a good ad creates a need or vacancy in consumers and then offers the solution, Arby’s subverts this trend. There is indeed a vacancy (or an abyss), but @Nihilist_Arbys never promises that it can be filled. Eating Arby’s becomes ancillary, ironic, just an option.

What happens when Nihilist Arby’s becomes a meme? The account is almost repetitive in its creative and reiterated fatalism, referencing twitter trends only insofar as they reinforce that everything is meaningless and we’re all going to die [alone]. Users have taken it further, attaching “Enjoy Arby’s” to bleak or depressing statements (often timely) like a smirk, the punctuation of ironic detachment. @Nihilist_Arbys becomes, not just the next Denny’s, but beyond it.

What happens when @Nihilist_Arbys becomes more recognizable or distinctive as promotion than Arby’s, the restaurant? Within months, the parody account was deemed a success by AdWeek whose coverage was explicit in its angle: what can marketers learn from it? The fact is even if you’re tweeting Nietzschean verses while eating Arby’s, you’re still eating their food.

That both of these are true reveals how discombobulated we become distinguishing between an account that is parody/commentary and one that becomes a brand. The parody reveals itself as a brand, just as displaying one’s awareness of the parody, being in on the joke, emerges as coinage of internet cool for one’s own brand.

Everyone is selling something

This personalizing of corporate social media accounts should be seen as inextricable from the legal humanization of corporations. Corporations have become amorphous beings — both single entities that can donate to political campaigns and collections of cogs that can each be discarded if they threaten the whole. (Indeed, the image of the lowly intern firing off tweets with little-to-no oversight has saved many a company from the guillotine of public outrage after poorly-worded, poorly-timed, or otherwise problematic tweets.) And this melding is not without casualties.

Wendy Brown’s analysis of neoliberalism, and Citizen’s United, specifically, reveals how the “terms and practices of democracy” become economized. Speech is presented as a “capital right, functioning largely to advance the position of its bearer,” and this extends to “social media “followers,” “likes,” and “retweets.” At the level of the discrete and the virtual, the “neoliberal turn” expands beyond the political to twist the personal; every tweet is a press release.

In the “online attention economy,” each social media blast is a brand calculated move. Every statement an advertisement for the business of me. And the intermingling between the social and the professional is increasingly past our ability to delimit. Companies like Buffer capitalize on the importance of social media engagement and “social media training” is now a legitimate industry. LinkedIn was the harbinger, but with Workplace, Facebook has entered the sphere of (explicitly) professional social media. Already my work-related research seeps into the specially-catered ads I see off-the-clock. The lines blur.

the human becomes business/the business becomes human

On October 4th, 2016 @Nihilist_Arbys announced that it is shamelessly selling merchandise. It’s hard to cast blame though, the transition from capital in the internet’s marketplace of attention to capital that carries non-virtual value (what you can buy food and housing with) is far from seamless, and even nihilists need to profit. @Nihilist_Arbys is more popular and recognizable than ever. Even nihilism, it seems, can sell sandwiches, and maybe shirts too. If the concept of renouncing advertising can be repurposed then so can anything. The account frames selling-out as on-brand, but it also signals the alignment of the satirical twitter account as an identifiable brand. Maybe we were too busy looking at what happens when corporate goes twitter, we missed what happens when twitter goes corporate.

The suffocating cinematography of Queen Sugar

By the fifth episode of Queen Sugar, directed by Victoria Mahoney, the universe’s stresses on the Bordelon clan have been unrelenting. The onslaught of difficulties and setbacks seem almost insurmountable in “By Any Chance,” and for much of the episode these accumulate through brilliant blocking, camera work, and especially how the framing translates, for viewers, the figurative position of characters. For much of this episode, it seems the Bordelons are trying to keep the frame from crushing them, but the frame seems to be winning.

A analysis of the visual rhetoric of episode 5 of Queen Sugar Season 1 originally published on October 5, 2016, on medium.com.

By the fifth episode of Ava Duvernay’s (@AVAETC) Queen Sugar, directed by Victoria Mahoney (@VictoriaMahoney), the universe’s stresses on the Bordelon clan have been unrelenting. The onslaught of difficulties and setbacks seem almost insurmountable in “By Any Chance,” and for much of the episode these accumulate through brilliant blocking, camera work, and especially how the framing translates, for viewers, the figurative position of characters. For much of this episode, it seems the Bordelons are trying to keep the frame from crushing them, but the frame seems to be winning.

Charley Bordelon West dominates this episode — but rarely the screen — as she juggles allegations of rape against her husband, a son caught between his parents and paparazzi, and her father’s cumbersome farmland. As Scott Eric Kaufman points out in a post on the visual rhetoric of Mr. Robot the “cumulative effect” of framing can manifest the feeling of characters and expand to those watching them.

When she [unwisely] confronts her husband’s accuser, the two women battle rhetorically. Though Charley [publicly] maintains her husband’s innocence, the bribe she’s offering indicates that her position is tenuous. Here she wants to dominate the screen, though Dawn-Lyen Gardner’s tilt away from center indicates that she’s feeling defensive. It is when she reiterates her willingness to work for a new offer that she can dominate the center of the screen. If Melina Gold takes a bribe, maybe that exonerates the Wests or at least casts doubts on Gold’s integrity. But when Charley underestimates and condescends to Gold, again (by defining “intractable”), she loses ground.

When she gets home, Charley calls her lawyer who predictably chastises her. While the lawyer dominates the screen’s center screen, balancing between the phone and her notes like Lady Justice, Charley is feeling boxed in.

Around her, the thresholds create a series of bars closing in. Charley is both her husband’s manager and trying to save her father’s farm, but this episode suggests her tendency to attack everything single-handedly isn’t be sustainable. By filming Charley through windows, she becomes more distant and out of focus (there’s a similar effect when she speaks to Micah in her car at the beginning of the episode). Charley is trying to solve the allegations against her husband, instead of dealing with her own emotions. In the process, she’s closing herself off.


When Charley speaks with Ralph Angel, the dynamic shifts.

Ralph Angel’s blunder with the infected crop eroded Charley’s trust in his ability to manage the farm, and this exacerbates the power imbalance between them.

Charley is allowed to occupy the center of the frame (though she hasn’t completely escaped her enclosure), but there is no reprieve for Ralph Angel, whose problems are piling up.

His parole officer has expressed an imperative that Ralph Angel maintain his job, but his sisters have little sympathy. Though he wants to take more responsibility in running the farm, his past has him backed into a corner.

When he gets his first paycheck (and it’s short) Ralph Angel finds himself between a rock and a hard place — between honest day’s work for less-than-honest day’s pay and the illegal activities of a coworker who already screwed him over once.


Violet and Hollywood

There’s a similar telegraphing for Violet and Hollywood’s [separate] introductions. New management at the High Yellow is changing procedures from the informal familiarity at which Violet excels to the mechanical operations of a big city chain.

This carries over to her run-in with old friends (who are conventionally successful) at her place of work, which has Violet torn between equal footing and a waitress’s perspective.


Searching for refuge, Violet calls her beau, who’s not at work as we might have expected.

Hollywood is at a hospital and as the camera — waist level — zooms in to catch him, the ceiling tiles and thresholds give the feeling that the walls are closing in.

While Vi has called him for support, to forget about her overwhelming feeling that’s enclosing her, Hollywood is rattled by his own problem.

He’s feeling particularly helpless as he walks through the door marked “Psychiatric Ward.”


It’s not all dour this episode.

While the Bordelon sisters love each other, they are both dealing with personal things that they’re unwilling to confess.

Though they sit on a bench with familiarity, there’s something keeping them apart. It takes Aunt Vi’s company to change the dynamic. Maybe with enough family and laughs (and a little bit of weed), the Bordelons can thrive.


Later, farm work keeps Charley caged — she has no idea what she’s doing — but it’s clear Remy Newell is her best chance for saving the farm.

This scene is a breath of fresh air for the two would-be farmers (and for us). It’s clear there’s a lot of potential for the land, and for Charley and Remy.

When [desperate for a win] Charley overspends at auction and loses her chance at a decent tractor, it’s Deus Ex-Remy that breaks through her self-constructed wall again.


Out of body experience.

At the end of the episode, Charley gets a call from Melina Gold. Gold is making her demand, but at the same time, it’s a sort of concession. Charley is working for an outcome that will allow her family/the media/the world to move on.

Wisely, Mahoney allows Gardner’s acting to carry the scene. Her face dominates whole screen, but this is far from a clean victory.

Mahoney allows a reflection or echo of Charley to take the frame’s center. This is where Charley wants to be, in control, but she’s not quite there. Gold wants an admission of guilt.

Charley is beside herself. And it’s becoming increasingly unlikely that she and her family can emerge unscathed. What is she willing to compromise to put this scandal in the past?


Note:

I skipped over Nova because she mostly has her own storyline going on. But I particularly love how Mahoney constructed certain shots of her break-up scene with Calvin through a plant.

This gives the scene and intimate, voyeuristic feel. As the two [now ex-] lovers lob darts at each other with the kind of weight that comes from two people who know each other intimately.

When Nova’s declares that she’s going after systemic injustice Calvin retorts “because of one kid.” It’s clear he doesn’t understand, and though they continue to speak, the conversation is over.

The moral grey of Hell or High Water

In the last scene of Hell or High Water, an oil rig rocks back and forth in the background of a conversation between a Texas Ranger and a Criminal. The drill moves like an inverted rocking chair — the kind we imagine a lawman might lounge in once he settles into retirement. If he ever gets there. The pair stand upon the Comancheria, also called the Great Plains, the setting and the underpinning for this story.

A piece on Hell or High Water (2016) originally published on October 4, 2016, on medium.com.

In the last scene of Hell or High Water, an oil rig rocks back and forth in the background of a conversation between a Texas Ranger and a Criminal. The drill moves like an inverted rocking chair — the kind we imagine a lawman might lounge in once he settles into retirement. If he ever gets there. The pair stand upon the Comancheria, also called the Great Plains, the setting and the underpinning for this story.

Land of the Comanche, of European settlers, now of small town Texan folk. Folk who seem to have been forgotten from the mainstream, still reeling from a recession that was kinder to Texas than most states, but who’s recovery has been even slower. White people own this land now, and they are reaping what they have sowed. The Comanche, Kings of the Plains, have been relegated to the felt green of the poker table. The Plains serve the interest of capital now; the pillaging of non-renewable resources so that the world may have gas and light is man’s chance for deliverance.


Sheridan’s screenplay is a tightly wound coil, from the first moment the camera snaps into the kinetic energy of a chase destined to happen. It’s not sly, but it’s absent wasted moments. We meet the Howard brothers before we know their faces, catching only their eyes. Perhaps, David Mackenzie’s direction seems to suggest, that’s all we need to know. The first scene introduces the Howard brothers as amateur bank robbers aiming at towns quiet enough that the post-clocking-in pre-morning coffee moment seems like unsettled territory. Their escape from the first stickup is an exhilarating joyride, and the camera hangs outside their car, giving us access to their conversation but not the brothers’ bond. Lens glare litters the frame, and we almost squint to look out to the flat land over which they make their first getaway.

It’s for a good cause. Toby Howard (Pine) is a man looking to do right for his kids, something like redemption for having screwed up everything else in his life. Pine plays him stoically, though his blue eyes radiate brightness, kindness, and determination in varying quantities. Tanner Howard (Foster) is an unrepentant criminal who has somehow managed to evade a jail cell for a year, and who is only too happy to join his brother’s plan to rob small town banks. These banks belong, not incidentally, to the same branch working to purchase the family homestead — the Howards’ only lifeline for a future out of poverty. The movie revels in that moral gray area, flattening right and wrong into a line as flat as the Texan horizon. But where does self-preservation give way to greed? And what will be left after the Howard brothers have smudged the boundary?

Marcus Hamilton (Bridges) is a Texas Ranger on the verge of retirement who doesn’t know how to exist outside his occupation. He’s an old racist with no life, but an astute cop. “Get a hobby,” his half-Comanche half-Mexican partner, tells him. Alberto (Birmingham) seems to be Hamilton’s only friend, though the latter interprets bonding as hazing about his brown partner’s heritage. Alberto’s discomfort with Marcus’s humor is at odds with how easily they otherwise reside in each other’s company. Maybe he’s just waiting for the old gringo to retire.

Marcus is not just old, but old-school and he’s determined to close what will probably be his last big case, though glory doesn’t seem to play into it; it’s not the letter of the law either, which High Water never treats with a straight face, but he is concerned with justice or something that smells like it. But even that is nebulous. After a particularly reckless lunch & stickup combo on Tanner’s part, the Ranger lets his tunnel vision and rough manner alienate a potential lead. To a waitress losing Toby’s $200 tip to evidence, there’s no family resemblance between justice and law.


Cowboy and Indian. Settler and Native. Marcus and Alberto are the old world and the new, but they’re also both officers of the State. Though it’s soon clear the badge, like the law, is not everything in the small towns of West Texas. Vigilante justice, the good man with the gun, are just as essential to protecting the town from outside threats — whether they wear cowboy boots or suits. Black people don’t exist here, and Indians are all but relegated to reservations in Oklahoma. Giles Nuttgen’s wide lens captures the expansive flatness of Texas. Characters are often forced towards the edge of the screen as the prize of manifest destiny takes center stage.

If Hell of High Water has a flaw, it’s how it embraces the issues of White men [Settlers] uncritically. The film’s script moves as stoically as its characters, without room for heartfelt monologues that might reveal interiority to a character like Alberto. We hear of a wife but know nothing about where he came from or what he wants. Though shocking, his death is merely a vehicle that propels Marcus to the top of the mountain. The Native’s death allows Marcus to be a hero, it isolates him as he traverses into retirement, and crystallizes him into vendetta. Alberto is a foil for his White partner and a testament to the success of Westward Expansion. What does it mean that the only brown person we see outside of a casino is an officer? Genocide and stolen land are juxtaposed with assimilation. The seizure of land and culture are inextricable, and both are erased. Thus poverty and alcoholism are untethered from colonial causes and become harmless jokes. The badge does not give Alberto access to subjectivity or his death meaning.

Similarly, this allows the poor whites of West Texas to assume the role of oppressed. Once the Native is removed, the filial [White] class struggle can continue and be redeemed; we are absolved from taking a side or condemning violence. High Water can remain in this perceived moral gray area. When Toby explains how the Howard brothers grew up immersed in poverty, their land ownership is unremarkable. But land means opportunity to build wealth and keep it, to pass something on to your children. Accordingly, Toby does not directly kill anyone, though his decisions lead to the death of others. It is Trevor who kills, and who suggests they target the riskier bank. It is Trevor who dies, wiping the slate clean. Toby’s sins prod viewers to consider whether the ends justify the means, but the question of right to land itself is taken for granted.

Alberto’s blood cannot be erased. It seeps into the ground where he falls. It makes the land possible, for Toby to pass on to his kids, for Marcus to chase him until he dies. The camera’s final move is to drop into the weeds; the Plains still exist, though oil rigs and paved highways cover them like scars. In the final scene a Ranger and a Criminal reaffirm their antagonism, their conflict will go on as it always has. The Cowboy is retired and Indian dead. In the background, the large metal rig pumping black gold from the ground rocks back and forth. Moving but staying in the same place.