A break from the war to go back in time, and beyond the grave. That’s right, it’s time for another Gangsters Movie Night — our irregular series where I and a guest talk about a movie about a place or theme I explore in Gangsters of Capitalism.
This week we go to a place that’s very close to my heart — Haiti — through the 1932 horror cult classic White Zombie. Starring Bela Lugosi as the mysterious sorcerer “Murder Legendre,” and set during the U.S. Occupation, this was the film that introduced the Haitian zonbi to the American masses. Contained within are all the deep-seated racism and contradictions that infuse zombie movies and literature to this day.
To talk about it, I’m joined by Kaiama Glover, a professor at Barnard College and scholar of Haitian and Francophone literature par excellence. At the end of the episode, Kaiama also talks about her new book, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being.
You can listen by clicking on the play button above or at Apple, Google, Downcast, Sticher, or wherever you do your listening. While you’re there, be sure to subscribe. And if you haven’t yet, make sure you don’t miss an issue of The Racket by signing up below. A transcript of the episode can be found by scrolling down.
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Episode transcript (may contain transcription errors)
Kaiama L. Glover: But then if you think about the fact that scene is happening in a movie that is saying zombification is real. There's something really weird about that I've always thought. The fact that there's this strange ambivalence in giving credence to the phenomenon that's supposed to be ridiculous. The ambivalence around whether or not it's "real".
Jonathan M. Katz: Sak ap fet, kijan nou ye. You are listening to The Racket, the podcast on foreign policy, racket of war and more. I am Jonathan M. Katz and this is another episode of our Gangsters Movie Night Series, which we feature a film that explores a theme or a place from my book, Gangsters of Capitalism: Smedley Butler, the Marines, and the Making and Breaking of America's Empire.
This week, we are going to a place that is very close to my heart, Haiti, via 1932s, White Zombie, directed by Victor Halperin and starring the one and only Bela Lugosi. This was the very first feature length zombie film in Hollywood, the movie that introduced American audience to the idea of zombies, a concept that up until that point had been confined to Haitian religion and folk belief. So if you're a fan of The Walking Dead, Night of the Living Dead, Army of the Dead, pretty much anything with dead in the title you have this movie to thank for it. Also both Rob Zombie and his band White Zombie took their names from this film. So it has a very important role in culture. Not an amazing film on its own, but I have an incredible guest to talk about it with me, Dr. Kaiama L. Glover.
Kaiama is the Ann Whitney Olin Professor of French & Africana Studies at Barnard College in the city of New York. She is also the faculty director of the Digital Humanity Center. The editor of Archipelagos Journal, a New York Public Library Cullman Center Fellow and the author of a new book, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being. Kaiama, welcome to The Racket.
Kaiama: Thank you, Jonathan. I take exception at you saying this is not a good movie. I thoroughly enjoyed watching and re-watching it for today.
Jonathan: Excellent. I'm glad to hear it.
Kaiama: Good in that nerdy sense, the way academics think things are good. We've got plenty to chat about.
Jonathan: Spoiler alert! Pause if you want to go see this. If you want to see it, I highly recommend there's a free version on YouTube …
Kaiama: I didn't know that, I spent 99 cents watching this on Amazon Prime.
Jonathan: … I highly recommend the Amazon Prime version. There's a restored version, which does nothing for the racism, but the sound mixing and the visuals are much better in that version. So I highly recommended that.
Kaiama: Well then I don't regret giving Bezos my money. Okay. Fair enough.
Jonathan: You made the right choice. So what's going on in this thing?
Kaiama: It is a pretty straightforward and simple plot, I think it's safe to say. We've got a beautiful young White woman from New York who has shown up in Haiti, ready to reunite with and marry her fiance, a dude named Neil. He is also White, suffice it to say. He's a bank employee. He's working in the capital of Haiti in Port-au-Prince. The backstory of the film is that on her way to meet her beloved, she was on a ship with a very wealthy man, a plantation owner, whose name is Charles Beaumont or Charles Beaumont. This guy has apparently befriended her on the boat on the way over and has enjoined her to marry her fiance on his estate. And she, for some reason, agrees to get married at this stranger's house. Bad move on Madeline's part. But she and her soon to be husband Neil, show up at the estate and they do get married. But we learn very quickly that Charles Beaumont has not done this out of altruism. He is in fact, in love with Madeline. And conspires with a man named Legendre played by Bela Lugosi, who is the leader of a zombie mini hoard, a group of about six other people he's zombified in addition to a whole sugar mill's worth of zombified Black and Brown people who work for him at this sugar mill.
Charles Beaumont (Robert Fraser): Zombies!
Murder Legendre (Bela Lugosi): Yes, they are my servants. Did you think we could do it alone? In their lifetime, they were my enemies …
Jonathan: And Bela Lugosi, he's essentially a bokor. He's a sorcerer.
Kaiama: Yes, he is a sorcerer. Or he has sorcerer capabilities, because he is not Haitian, obviously. I want to come back to this clearly not Haitian practicer of magic with the left hand. But any who, Beaumont hopelessly in love with Madeline, he tries to get her to dump her fiance and marry him as he walks her down the aisle. Nonetheless, resorts to the dark magic and gets this poison from Legendre, Bela Lugosi, to zombify his beloved.
Silver (Brandon Hurst): But what you're planning is dangerous.
Beaumont: Don't you suppose I know that, Silver. You don't seem to realize what this girl means to me. Why I'd sacrifice anything I have in the world for her. Nothing matters if I can't have her.
Kaiama: And so a process of zombification happens, she "dies", as far as her fiance is concerned. She's buried and he goes on to develop a small drinking problem, I guess. But Legendre goes, as one does, retrieves the corpse of Madeline. Reanimates it and turns her into Beaumont's zombified bride.
And she then spends the next little while wafting around his mansion in a state of zombification. Beaumont soon finds this to be not ideal in a partner and is distressed by the fact that she is essentially a soulless being that lives in his house, looking pretty. That gets old fast enough.
And so he goes back to Legendre and says, "I'd like to bring her back to life, whatever the cost."
Legendre pretends to agree to do that. He then toasts to the reanimation of Madeline. But in fact, the wine he gives Beaumont is poisoned with the same zombie poison. And he too then becomes almost a zombie.
Simultaneous to this drama happening with Legendre, Beaumont and the zombified Madeline, Neil gets it together enough to work with another character, a secondary character, Dr. Bruner, who has lived in Haiti for a long time. And who is a missionary, I think. Who was a priest and a doctor. And who then with the help of, I mean, what plays in the movie is a Haitian Sherpa man.
Jonathan: In blackface.
Kaiama: They get together and say they are going to save Madeline from what they have figured out is her zombification. Neil has drunkenly stumbled to her grave, found it empty, gone to his friend, Dr. Bruner. And Dr. Bruner has clarified that, that Beaumont dude must have zombified her.
So the two of them go off to the estate. And so the sickly Neil, Dr. Bruner, they go up to Legendre's castle.
Jonathan: In Transylvania.
Kaiama: [laughs] In Transylvania. In an unrecognizable landscape, somewhere in Haiti/Transylvania, to rescue Madeline. And everything goes wrong because, so Madeline's a zombie, Beaumont about to be a zombie, Neil succumbs to his yellow fever and passes out upon arrival. And Legendre uses his zombified Madeline to maybe kill Neil, because he's got other plans for Madeline. I guess she's going to become his zombie bride.
Neil Parker (John Harron): Madeline! I found you! You are alive! Alive! What's the matter? It's I! Neil!
Kaiama: Dr. Bruner keeps Madeline from killing Neil. And then there's a climactic scene in which everyone's fighting. And the end is hilarious. And let's just say Legendre and Beaumont end up falling off the castle cliff to their deaths. Madeline gets de-zombified, Neil recovers from malaria and they embrace at the end.
Madeline Parker (Madge Bellamy): Neil, I dreamed.
Kaiama: Bruner saves the day and cracks a really funny one-liner.
Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn): Excuse me please, have you got a match?
Jonathan: So to situate this a little bit, in the late 1920s, early 1930s, there was a moral panic. There was a sense that films were perverting and turning Americans into psychopaths. And so this Presbyterian elder named William H. Hayes, who had before that been and postmaster general under President Harding, came and wrote this code that basically tried to take the sex and the murder out of movies.
So this is a pre-code film, but the whole plot is, we're dealing with dark magic. We're dealing with horror. We're dealing with exoticism. And these were all things that fall out of movies in the decades after this, once Hollywood starts following this self-imposed code. And I think that's part of why this movie ends up retaining cult status and then launching zombie literature.
This movie is actually based on a chapter from a non-fiction book, a 1929 travel log called The Magic Island written by W.B. Seabrook, who was a white journalist adventurer of the 1920s type. Who traveled to Haiti during the US occupation, which started in 1915.
And that's an invasion in which my Smedley Butler, the main character of my book, plays a central role. The Marines were actually still occupying Haiti brutally when this movie came out in the United States.
So the movie comes out in '32, the occupation ends in 1934, after 19 years in all. So in that chapter of The Magic Island, the part that is plausibly true, is that Seabrook is recounting a conversation with a Haitian tax collector who tells him this legend. The tax collector tells Seabrook about this episode that he claims to have witnessed in which a platoon of zombies have been sold as slave labor to the Haitian American Sugar Company or HASCO, which was one of the main US export companies that was propped up by the occupation.
It's through the occupation that Seabrook learns about zombies. And then he writes The Magic Island, which is a very influential book. It influences a lot of people, influences a lot of writers. It influences American perceptions of Haiti through the middle of the 20th century.
This chapter first inspired a Broadway play also called White Zombie. The Halperin brothers saw that and then redacted that into this movie. This movie is also part of a larger, just gross theft of Haitian Culture, especially Vodou. The Vodou religion. It's being suppressed actively in Haiti by the Marines. And at the same time, it is being appropriated and stolen by the Marines and by other Americans who come within the context of the occupation. And then they're repackaging it for American audiences.
I was just wondering if you can talk a little bit about what are zombies in Haitian culture? What did the zombie mean before it was taken by these American colonizers and resold as entertainment back home?
Kaiama: As you well know, in asking it, that's such a big question, right?
Kaiama: I think what one could say about the zombie that appropriate here is that, it's marked profoundly by ambivalence.
What is a zombie? I think you could ask any number of different Haitian people or Haitianists and get any number of different answers to that question. So the way I think about the zombie in my own work is, as having both anthropological and then also creative purchase or metaphorical purchase in Haitian culture.
And by Haitian culture, I mean, both the Haitian quotidian and the Haitian's popular imagination. But then also in literary culture and in cultural production. So zombie is certainly a phenomenon that originates in the Western coast of Africa. It's part of an Afro-diasporic tradition. But it has its own very particular Haitian flavor to it.
Anthropologically, the zombie is a person or arguably a former person, a person's body, a corpse that has been reanimated in order to serve the interests, either of bokor, which is a sorcerer or someone who has enjoined that bokor to zombify someone on their behalf as Beaumont has done.
And what it entails is, giving a perfectly healthy human being, some poison that essentially slows down their metabolism significantly enough, that they appear as deceased to their loved ones. And as such are buried. That person with the almost to death slowed down metabolism is then reanimated by the same sorcerer.
And one of the three portions of their being, and those three portions would be their ko kadav, their petit bonanj and their gwo bonanj. One of those three portions, the petit bonanj, is retained in some sort of receptacle. An almost equivalent of the spirit or the soul, but not exactly. That's a vulgar translation into other terms.
But in any event, that important intellectual and animating force is contained. The ko kadav, which is essentially the corpse is able to work. And then the gwo bonanj, which animates that corpse is also under the control of the houngan or the person who has contracted the houngan or the bokor in this case.
Jonathan: To analogize it to a totally different realm of popular literature. It's almost a horcrux from Harry Potter. You've got-
Kaiama: Oh my gosh, yeah. Nice.
Jonathan: Right. Because, you've got basically somebody's soul, in an object.
Kaiama: Right, exactly. Well put. I'd never thought about that before. It probably doesn't belong in any of my academic papers, but it'll be useful in my classroom at the very least.
Coachman (Charles Muse): Zombies! Allez vite! Allez!
Kaiama: You mentioned a number of zombie films that have come since White Zombie. And everyone thinks they know what a zombie is, but the zombie we encounter in Hollywood films on AMC and in the Boston Zombie run or what have you, are very different to the anthropological Haitian zombie.
The Haitian zombie isn't trying to run after you bite you or eat your brain. It's not coming after you in flash mobs. The Haitian zombie is an unfortunate individual who has fallen under the spell of a bokor. More to be pitied than feared in certain kinds of ways.
Jonathan: In the genealogy of zombie literature, you can actually see the moment. It's in 1954 in Richard Matheson writes a book, I Am Legend. I Am Legend is then adapted by George Romero into Night of the Living Dead. But Romero, actually looking back, he says that when he made night of the living dead, he didn't think of those creatures as zombies.
His quote was, "We never thought of the creatures in our film as zombies like everyone else at the time, we believe zombies to be those bug-eyed soulless beings that wandered the fields in Haiti.
Kaiama: There you go.
Jonathan: Romeo also, fantastic filmmaker, he's subverting the racialization of the zombie on its head in a lot of different ways. And he ends up working in explicit references to Vodou, which zombies don't exactly come out of, but they come from the same larger spiritual tradition. I don't think, the zombie isn't part of the Vodou religion with its Pantheon of love, of gods. But it's from the people who brought you Vodou basically.
Kaiama: Oh my gosh, I love that, how you're putting it.
Jonathan: Yeah. And Romero, in his later films, in Day of the Dead and others, he brings in a little bit more of an acknowledgment of that. The interesting thing is that, what Matheson does in I Am Legend, is he marries the Haitian zombie with the vampire, and also in that book.
So it's a post apocalyptic fantasy about a global pandemic, which has turned humanity into flesh eating monsters and they're vampires. So they're chasing people down and eating them.
Kaiama: And infecting them.
Jonathan: Right. Infecting them by eating them. I guess it's a reverse vampire. Well, no, it's a vampire.
Kaiama: It's a vampire.
Jonathan: By biting your victim, they become one of you.
Kaiama: Right and they're not eating them. They're, for some inexplicable reason, just compelled to transform other people into people like them, right?
Kaiama: It's like they bite them and go on their way to bite others.
Jonathan: And the way that works back into this movie, it's a post hoc situation, because these are the things that happen afterward. But it's interesting because it takes vampirism, which in the European and American context is a form of generally antisemitism. It's a conspiracy theory in which there's a group of super powerful malevolent immoral beings whose only thing is to just ruin everything for everybody else and steal other people's souls and bodies.
Which is totally different from zombies, which is in many ways, it's a remembrance, it's a cultural way of talking about the legacies and trauma of slavery.
Kaiama: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Jonathan: And as Seabrook says in his book, he describes them as a soulless human corpse, still dead, but taken from the grave and endowed by sorcery with a mechanical semblance of life. And he says that, "This is done occasionally for the commission of some crime, but more often, simply as a drudge around the habitation of the farm, setting it dull heavy tasks and beating it like a dumb beast, if it slackens."
And the thing that's interesting about looking back to this film, 1932 movie is that, the sorcerer in this movie is played by Bela Lugosi who right before this movie, right before he made this project, the project he did before that was Dracula. I don't know the extent to which seeing this movie and seeing Lugosi as the zombie bokor, as the zombie sorcerer or whatever might have influenced Matheson.
But you were talking about, that it's not entirely clear what nationality Bela Lugosi is, because Bela Lugosi, he's got his Romanian or Transylvanian accent. But I think the important thing is, and the way that he appears to an audience in 1932, is just as a foreigner.
And he's not in Blackface. There are white people in this movie who are wearing Blackface. So we can say affirmatively that they don't try to put him in blackface, but he's given this sinister goatee and he has-
Kaiama: He's not white.
Jonathan: He's not White. And he's not white in a way, which in 1932, that could be Jewish or could be it be Italian.
Kaiama: It could be German.
Kaiama: It could be Austro-Hungarian is what I was thinking, given the historical and political context, where the US was anti, I mean, as we have often been, but particularly anti-German and in competition with Germans in Haiti, or what have you.
Not that he was meant to be German, but he was clearly distinct from the other White-ish, like the non-Black characters. He was no innocent lovely Neil or Madeline. He wasn't the wealthy Beaumont. He was clearly, maybe a blanc in the Kreyòl sense? Just a foreigner. But he was a devious and ti pe foreigner. How he looked was meant to signify his degradation or his decadent self in some way.
Jonathan: He could be a white Haitian elite. Or beke from somewhere else in the Caribbean or something like that.
Jonathan: And the movie is playing with, so as I said there is... and it was in inescapable. So we're digging back into this movie here. So one important thing I think to note, White Zombie, this is the movie, it inspires the band, White Zombie. It inspires essentially all of zombie literature and movies that come after it. Or they can be traced back to this choke point in some way.
And it is unmistakably Haiti. They make a big deal about the fact that it's Haiti, the movie opens with a burial in the road. There are Black actors, they're burying the corpse of a loved one in the road.
And the only two fully identifiable White American characters are Neil and Madeline. They're coming down the road and he's making explicit references to, "Here we are in the West Indies."
And throughout the movie, they use Haiti as a source of authenticity. It's a way to make the movie more terrifying. There's a scene where the missionary is explaining to Neil. And he's giving this scientific explanation for what is happening here.
He says, "The law of Haiti acknowledges the possibility of being buried alive." And then he says, "Here it is in the penal code."
Dr. Bruner (Joseph Cawthorn): The law of Haiti, the acknowledges the possibility of being buried alive. Here it is in the famous world. I'll read it for you. It's in French. Do you speak French?
Neil Parker (John Harron): No.
Dr. Bruner: The use of drugs or other practices, which produced lethargic coma or lifeless sleep shall be considered attempted murder.
Dr. Bruner: Attempted.
Neil: Yes, I see.
Dr. Bruner: All right. If the person has been buried alive, he actually considered murder, no matter what result follows.
Jonathan: And he quotes Article 2.49, I think of, I guess it's the Code Rural, I'm not sure which penal code it is. But in the advertisements for the movie, they put a translated part of the penal code on the posters, because the point is, this really happens. These people are such savages.
In that scene, the missionary says to Neil, "There's superstitions in Haiti that the natives brought from Africa. Some of them can be traced back as far as ancient Egypt. And beyond that yet in the countries that were old, when Egypt was young." Neil persuaded that this is something that could actually happen.
Neil: Do you mean that Madeline was murdered so that somebody could steal her dead body?
Dr. Bruner: No. Her body yes, but not her dead body.
Neil: Well, surely you don't think she's alive in the hands of natives. Oh no, better dead than that!
Jonathan: In order to establish that authenticity. And this is interesting because this is a thing, again, that Americans have no memory of. We have no memory of where zombies came from. And we have no memory of the US occupation. And those two things are related. But there're all these references, two things that Americans would know from the occupation.
Kaiama: As a Haitianist and someone living in the 21st century who is well aware of the American occupation and the extent to which tales about voodoo proliferated in part as propagandistic justification for American imperialism. It's hard to imagine how much folks knew at the time, because it's all right there in the film.
The fact that you have, it's not a coincidence that Neil is a banker, because this is, we are well aware now of the extent to which the United States was involved in Haiti and the interest of shoring up economic interests and protecting economic interests. We know that.
Jonathan: Specifically Citibank.
Kaiama: Specifically Citibank.
We can see very clearly the trope of the virgin bride potentially being sallied by the darkness of these exotic peoples outside the safety of the United States. And so all of the subtext around her sexualization and objectification, in addition to the low key and high key racism that permeates the whole thing.
It's very easy to place this film in its moment. The question might be whether or not somehow Halperin was making some critique. Was he as the director in any way aware of the ways in which this was telling a certain story of US involvement in Haiti and of the occupation? Or was he just showing his racism and exoticism and whatever else? I think it's more likely the latter.
Jonathan: That's my read. I mean, it's interesting because Seabrook, I think in The Magic Island, the book that it is a very short chapter. I think it's called Dead Men Working in the Cane Fields. Seabrook, I think he's playing a little bit with some criticism of the occupation. There's a little bit of an anti-capitalist critique. The Americans are the bad guys here.
That while we're taking advantage of this dark prime, evil Haitian magic, we're actually the bad guys here because we're the ones who are profiting from this. Maybe I'm missing this. I didn't get that impression at all from Halperin's movie. I think that if he was going to be picking up on Seabrook's critique, I think it would come through in the sugar mill scene.
I don't know. Did you take anything out of that scene? Do you think that there was any critique going on? Because I think it was just like, "Look at these horrible people and they're so stupid." And the zombie falls off a legend into the cane crusher while a Marine zombie is, who looks a lot like Smedley Butler by the way, while he stands guard. He's introduced at another point as Marquis, Captain of Gendarmerie. And the Gendarmerie d’Haiti, the Haitian Gendarmerie was Smedley Butler's creation. That was his client military.
But anyway, I've gone on. So what did you think? That would be the one place where maybe some of Seabrook's critique might have come through, but I didn't see it in that scene personally.
Kaiama: I don't think there's a way to read any of it as critique, frankly. I mean, maybe unwitingly it sneaks in there because he borrows from the source material. But frankly, it seems more without being in Halpern's head nor knowing much about him as a director, beyond this, because I don't think he did much of note as far as I know.
But in any event, it just seems like, "Of course you would put that scene in. It's titillating. It's shocking. Gives an opportunity to see the source of Legendre's wealth and power. And it's another moment where Black folks are decorative in the film. You see them by the side of the road. If you see them in that scene. And the Coachman and the Sherpa. But there's not much.
If I were teaching the film, it would be a teachable moment only in as much as Legendre makes that comment about, "You you could use guys like this for your plantations.", which of course is an illusion first to the corvee, which was the forced work system happening during the occupation where the Marines impressed Black Haitians into service as a free workforce. That was of course itself reminiscent of enslavement. So that escapes the frame, but I wouldn't think that it was meant to do it that way.
Jonathan: And by the way, the corvee imposed by Smedley Butler from his reading of the Haitian legal code.
You brought up the Coachman scene. It opens with Neil and Madeline entering Haiti, encountering this burial on the road at night, where these people are burying their loved one in the road so that the corpse can't be taken. And then they are approached by Lugosi. And then when they get to Beaumont's house, there's an exchange between the Coachman and Neil.
Neil says, "Why did you drive like that you fool, we might have been killed."
And the Coachman says, "Worse than that, Monsieur, we might have been caught."
And he says, "Caught? By whom? Those men spoke to?”
“They are not men, Monsieur, they are dead bodies.”
Coachman (Charles Muse): Yes Monsieur. Zombies. The living dead. Corpses taken from their graves. One their way to work in sugar mills and fields at night.
Jonathan: So there's a couple of interesting things about that moment. One is that, because this is the first feature length zombie movie, this is the first time that American audiences have heard the word zombie and that description of them as the living dead.
And in that initial introduction, they put in this reference to sugar mills and fields at night. The other thing that's interesting is that as an actor, who is not credited in the film, but later on people have figured out that, that was Clarence Muse. Who happened to be the first Black man to appear in a starring role in American movie. In 1929, he was in a starring role in Hearts in Dixie. A couple years after that, he starred in a movie called The Broken Earth, which was directed by the Polish immigrant, Roman Freulich. It's one of the few you films of the period that features a Black protagonist, a sharecropper against the backdrop of The Great Migration.
And so it's interesting. And it's interesting that have those lines spoken by not a Haitian, but a by a Black American. Not somebody in Black face. I read that also as a way to lend authenticity to this moment. It's like, "This is a real Black man telling you this. This is a real horror that exists."
I don't know. Do you have anything to add about that or are there other scenes which you'd to talk about?
Kaiama: Well, I mean, I guess that scene and others are really, to me, almost just one example of the phenomenon that I find rampant and difficult to resolve around the zombie, which is the ambivalence around whether or not it's "real", whether or not it's to be believed.
And I only say that because, what the film does is its stages in that scene in particular. So you've got this Black man, he's not Haitian, but American audiences at the time, whatever potato, potato. Black dude.
Jonathan: He said monsieur so he must be.
Kaiama: He must be Haitian. He just used a French word. One of those French Negros. So you've got this person who has, through this exposition, explained what a zombie is to these two White people who are clearly shocked and a little scared by what it is they're seeing. But who are also reserving some judgment.
They aren't certain that, that's what that it. It could easily be what Dr. Bruner calls, "This country full of nonsense and suspicion. And that's like staging something we can expect, which is Black and Haitian irrationality against White Western and Quasi-European reason. But then if you think about the fact that, that scene is happening in a movie that is saying zombification is real. There's something really weird about that, I've always thought.
The fact that there's this strange ambivalence in giving credence to the phenomenon that's supposed to be ridiculous. That at the end of the movie, there is no suspension of disbelief. We, as an audience, are meant to come away having seen the story of people who weren't sure that this was happening in Haiti, people who experience it, meaning that it is real.:
And so that scene strikes me as this last moment where we've got this bug eyed wide eyed, super excited Black character, who's scared and made to seem slightly ridiculous. And that then confirmed by the priest doctor, which is, it's amazing. He's both a priest and a doctor. The authority par excellance and he's been in Haiti for a minute. So he knows what he is talking about.
But at the end of the day, it's all true. The Blacks in the film are right to do the burial by the side of the road in order to make sure that nothing happens to death. And the Coachman is right to be afraid of Legendre. So it's interesting the way in which a film that's meant to showcase irrationality and savagery and impossibility like, "That's what happens in the Islands." And, "We are safe from that as rational White beings in the world.", is actually not the case.
So what is the film telling us? What is it saying then about White susceptibility to the influence of Blackness or of the Islands?
Jonathan: I was listening to a great podcast, Time To Say Goodbye as hosted by friend of mine, Jay Caspian Kang. And they were talking about conspiracy theories about China and the Coronavirus. That they both require China to be this savage land of backward people who eat rats and are really sloppy and don't know what they're doing. And are also masterminds who created this incredible, bio-weapon, that they spread around the world.
Kaiama: Exactly. That's a great point.
Jonathan: And then that one, they analogize it to antisemitism, which is another racist conspiracy theory in which Jews were both really dirty and dumb and craving, but also brilliant masterminds who are controlling the world secretly.
Racism doesn't need consistency. In fact, consistency and racism are often antithetical to each other. So I think we're seeing that here. It's like, "These dumb, crazy, magical, super powerful people." And in some ways that makes Haitians in the movie or Black people in general, I guess, extra terrifying because it's like, "You never know. They might be crazy." "Or they might be crazy like a fox and they might steal your bride."
Kaiama: I mean, but that's the common denominator in all of this. And I think the analogy with the other podcast topic is apt. The common denominator is, white vulnerability with the threat of the advancing hoards of the global South be, or the so-called Orientals.
That there's somehow both the idea behind white supremacy, which is the absolute rightness and righteousness of Whiteness, but also to sustain it has to evoke a fear of the other. But a credible fear of the other. That threat has to be credible in order to justify repression and exploitation.
And invasion and occupation in all of these things, because if it was just a bunch of silly Black people, then we wouldn't have to step in and sort things out and oppress and legitimize behavior that is anti-human and anti-humanist. We have to show that, "If we don't do this, they're going to come for, 'where are the White women at?'", from Blazing Saddles, if you catch it. "Where are the White women at?" That's the threat that remains consistent. But that's a cathexis of a bigger phenomenon of the endangerment of Whiteness.
And to put it in 1932 and in the context of the US occupation, it is another example of that coming up in this movie, is Lugosi's introduction of the zombies. And he gives their back stories. And they're all archetypes from the occupation.
There's Richard, the Minister of The Interior. There's Von Gelder, the wealthy German businessmen, because the fear of German influence is part of the reason why the Wilson administration justified the invasion. That, "If we don't occupy Haiti, then the Germans are going to come and take it out from under our noses." There's the witch doctor. And then there's, like I said, there's Smedley Butler the zombie. Marquis, Captain of Gendarmerie.
Jonathan: And one of the things that's happening here that I think we're getting at is, the terror of the encounter. Fear of Haitian, of Black self-liberation. Of Black independence. There's this idea that because Haiti is a Black country, it is the second oldest independent Republic in the Americas after the United States, the first and the only to be founded in a successful revolution by enslaved people against their French masters.
And part of what we're seeing in this movie is there's this fear that Haitians are both incredibly weak. And so they're just going to be taken over by the Germans or some other White power that's going to come and invade our backyard in the Monroe Doctrine sphere of influence sense. But also they're super powerful.
And so they can defeat White people. They defeated the French. And by the way, again, I don't think it's a coincidence that in this movie, the actor who sets the plot in motion, is this White planter who is Beaumont, who, he's European. So he's not American. It's unclear exactly what his background is.
But it's like he's weak. And then he trusts this maybe Haitian sorcerer. And then he ends up getting taken advantage of. And he ends up getting zombified himself. This is a theme that runs through zombie literature right up into the present day, which is that we have to encounter these unwashed, dirty hoards of subhuman people.
But by encountering them, they're somehow going to attack us or defeat us. That, that threat still exists. And this is my theory of why Robert Matheson's idea of the parasitic vampires zombie fits in so perfectly and ends up just taking over the entire literature in the West. It's because it's this idea that we have to go to Haiti in order to conquer these people because they can't take care of themselves. But in doing so, they will maybe infect us.
Kaiama: Absolutely. The corollary of that is, if they try to come in our direction, they've got to be quarantined at Guantanamo Bay or returned from where's they came. I mean, I've thought about this a lot. The extent to which the zombie horde is a pretty neat signifier for the way that we make efforts to build walls around the safe spaces of neoliberal White capitalism.
Be it detainment at Guantanamo, be it a border wall with Mexico, be it refugee camps in any number of places that apply only to Black and Brown people, as opposed to, I don't know, say Eastern European people. The zombie is the one subhuman being that at least in our entertainment, we can freely and without any sense of guilt, just slaughter. Or as in the case of the film you just referenced, nuke.
That was the plan for the city, is to contain the zombies and then nuke them. And I think that it's only if you scratch beneath the surface of that entertainment and you trace the lineage of the zombie to what we're doing right now, to the moment of its emergence into mainstream American consciousness.
And then we double back even a little bit more to recognize that the originary site of this creature is a Black island that we have struggled to sort out, for lack of a better phrase, since the 18th century. That continuum becomes clear. And you can see all the work that the zombie is doing.
Jonathan: Yeah. It's deep man. Zombies.
Kaiama: It's deep man. Zombies. And to be clear, this is a bad film. There's no getting around it. I was kidding with you at the beginning when I said, "How dare you?"
I mean, honestly, it's just the acting alone, the plot, the shadow puppets in the bar scene, for lack of, I guess, funding to pay extras. It's pretty rinky-dink. But nonetheless, just such a phenomenal artifact in the story that it tells about that particular moment in entertainment history and in American history. And missionary history, to an extent.
Watching the film, I was like, "Okay, I'm trying to think about it. So it's work. I'm not watching it for entertainment." But I was thinking to myself, "So when this came out, am I reacting to this film as someone in 2022 who is looking at something that was made 90 years ago?"
And that's just how people acted and that was considered good. And then I said, "Okay. That's not really. Is there a world in which in 90 years from now, people are going to look at films we've done and are like, 'That's how they acted in the 21st century.'" Maybe this is either typical or bad. But I don't have access to the feeling one would have in a theater seeing this acting. Where does it fall on the spectrum? The film is such a caricature, it's so overacted and underacted at moments. The plot is so messed up and weird and thin in many respects, that it's hard to tell if that was acceptable and fine as entertainment or if this is a particularly bad movie.
Jonathan: I think it was particularly bad. I mean seven years after this movie is made, in 1940 we get Citizen Kane, we get Gone with the Wind, we get The Wizard of Oz.
Kaiama: Fair enough.
Jonathan: Movies are still finding themselves, but you could Barbara Stanwyck is in a big film in 1932, I think in The Purchase Price all …
Kaiama: So people are doing good.
Jonathan: Laurel and Hardy and the Marx brothers are doing, there's decent movies coming out.
Kaiama: All right.
Jonathan: So I guess, I guess your final recommendation on this would be, pass.
Kaiama: Is that where we're landing. Thumbs up or thumbs down. No, it's a hard pass. Except for it's so unique and so fundamental that it's interesting for those reasons. But it's squarely not a good film.
Jonathan: So I just want to ask you very quickly about your book. You could just tell us a little bit about it and congratulations on it.
Kaiama: Thank you. There's zombies in it.
Kaiama: The second chapter. So the book is, A Regarded Self: Caribbean Womanhood and the Ethics of Disorderly Being. And one of the chapters thinks about the Franco Haitian author, René Depestre was 1988 prize winning novel [foreign language 00:48:28], Hadriana in All My Dreams. Actually, which I also translated back in 2017, which has a zombie as one of its main characters.
And it has a White woman zombie as one of its main characters. And that White woman becomes a zombie on her wedding day. That is a common phenomenon in zombie literature and zombie mythology, is at the White virgin is transformed into a zombie before she can be soiled even by the hands and whatever other apparator or her legitimate spouse.
But in a way that bucks the myth as it normally goes, this zombie escapes from zombification by various disorderly moves.
And so that chapter though, it's the second chapter in the book, is the chapter that started my thinking about the ways in which certain kinds of narratives constrain women or objectify women or zombify women. So that even in the heart of thinking about zombification, which is about enslavement is about alienation and all those things on a broad scale, there's a particular hell reserved for women.
And that's the way the book thinks about a number of novels. Maryse Condé's, I, Tituba, Black Witch of Salem. René Depestre's, Hadriana in All My Dreams. Haitian writer, Marie Vieux-Chauvet's, Daughter of Haiti from 1954. And then two Anglophone novels. Marlon James', The Book of Night Women from 2009. And Jamaica Kincaid's, The Autobiography of My Mother.
And each of these books has at their center, a disorderly woman who refuses to be either constrained by her community or even incorporated into a community that either witingly or unwitingly seeks to do her harm. And the trick of the book is, or the way into the book is that some of those communities are communities that we consider to be progressive or liberal or good in every way.
And so a woman's decision to not be a part of those communities reads in ways that make us uncomfortable as readers. So that's the book.
Jonathan: I love it. I love it.
Jonathan: And I love that both of us managed to work zombies into our books.
Kaiama: Into our books.
Jonathan: Why not?
Kaiama: Why not?
Jonathan: They pop up everywhere. You never know where they're going pop up.
Kaiama: Literally and metaphorically, they pop up.
Jonathan: All right. Well, thank you. Thank you very much for coming on The Racket, Kaiama. This was fantastic.
Kaiama: A pleasure. And thank you for your book. I enjoyed every page of it.
Jonathan: Thank you. I really appreciate it.
Kaiama: Glad to be in conversation with you.
Jonathan: I appreciate that.
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Thank you to The Racket Podcast team. This episode was produced by Evan Roberts and Annie Malcolm. Sam Feelman is the editor of The Racket. Our theme music is by Los Plantronics. And of course, for more of my writing about foreign policy, the racket of war, all kinds of things, you can find more on my Substack at theracket.news. Thanks for listening. Stay safe.