Directed, written and produced by Rolf de Heer, The Survival of Kindness has fantastic performances, gorgeous direction and cinematography, but I am back to asking that question once again: Who is this for? My perception of how much is too much isn’t an issue for me if these things, these actions, are done with a certain level of refinement through a particular lens. But watching the character go through one tragic moment after another does move me in a way that isn’t always positive.
The film opens with Blackwoman (Mwajemi Hussein) in a cage in the middle of the Australian outback, left to die — but she isn’t ready for that fate yet. Her resilience and patience is such that she is able to break free, but, where to now? There is endless desert in all directions, so she just walks, barefoot, for an indeterminate amount of time. It’s almost like she is walking a path through literal hell as she sees one human horror after another, searching for a moment of peace where there is none.
Blackwoman encounters different individuals along the way, none of whom speak the same language but communicate in various ways. After meeting some other wayward travelers, they enter a small town where she is caught and enslaved. However, Blackwoman is determined to move forward, and breaks the chains of bondage once again, to witness even more calamity. This time, she seeks refuge from the outside world from the most unlikely place.
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This film is an allegory for modern-day racism. The title character’s name is Blackwoman and the other characters are defined by their skin color, which is how most people of color are defined by the world. But in de Heer’s world, everyone exists in purgatory, wandering in various directions looking for life, kindness, etc. This fictional landscape is post-apocalyptic in nature and fits the theme of loneliness and isolation that Blackwoman feels. She moves from place to place, seeing the misfortune of this dust-laden world as Black and Brown folks are shot, lynched and enslaved by white, masked oppressors.
Hussen gives her character gravitas and tenacity, even though she remains stoic throughout. As a viewer, you know she’s going to get through every round of misfortune that befalls her. Although dialogue is minimal, her eyes speak values as she moves through the environment, unable to ignore the chaos going on around her. De Heer’s direction and Maxx Corkindale’s cinematography does well to capture her experience in all its bleakness. The visuals are warm but so desolate the abject isolation is felt by the audience. While The Survival of Kindness is a visual feast, narratively, it lacks creativity.
It’s challenging to wrap my head around this story because shouldn’t allegories be used to teach something? How does the movie address racism and bigotry beyond “look at the horrible things white people have done.” There is nothing for me to learn here. History makes it clear what has been done to Black and Brown people, and it is important to explore that, but how many more movies about the cruelty of enslavement directed by white men do we need?
Black women in this world are often pushed to the margins of society, and walk through life feeling a particular type of seclusion that is unique to them. However, just like I ponder in my Emancipation review, what can directors and writers do differently to portray this period of history and the characters within it? Am I shying away from the destruction of it all? No. But films cannot be just all violence, atrocity and nothing else. And for me, I couldn’t find anything below the surface that resonated with me.
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