I have a lot invested in “Star Trek Into Darkness.”
I’m not a huge fan of the franchise as a whole. I’m one of those fans, the ones who got involved in “Star Trek” when J.J. Abrams came out with the reboot — hardened Trekkies would laugh at my newness to the fandom. But my love is honest and true; I feel for that movie what those of a previous generation felt for “Star Wars.” I fell in love with Chris Pine’s Kirk the second he threw that punch and started a completely unnecessary bar fight; Zachary Quinto’s Spock won my heart the first time he told someone to “live long and prosper” in a way that suggested he wished them to do neither. I cannot even begin to tell you the number of times I have seen this movie; it is my go-to film for rainy days, it’s what I watch whenever I need a pick-me up.
If you need more proof that I’m a big “Star Trek fan,” consider this; I flew halfway across the country a few weeks ago, just to see the film with some similarly obsessed friends. If you factor in the plane ticket, this is the most I’ve ever spent on a movie in my life.
I really wasn’t kidding about being invested in this film.
Weeks after seeing it, I think I’m emotionally able to talk about the movie on an semi-honest level. I can now, after a period of deep reflection, admit to myself that it wasn’t as good as I thought it was the night I saw it. There were plot holes. There was completely gratuitous nudity. The story lines for the women in the film were flimsy, their motivations firmly tied up in their feelings for a male character.
But most damningly, there was whitewashing. And this, this has been the hardest thing to admit to myself; it doesn’t matter how wonderful Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance was, the fact remains, he should not have been playing Khan.
There has been much ink spilled on the topic of whether or not it is acceptable for a white man to play a character that has historically been played by an actor of color. To me, it’s not a debate. It’s obvious that doing so is out of line. Imagine, if you will, Lando Calrissian being portrayed by a white man, in a reboot of “Star Wars.” Imagine if J.J. Abrams had decided to cast a white woman to play Lieutenant Uhura. The very thought is ludicrous. And the absurdity of a white man playing a man named Khan Noonien Singh is self-evident, if you’re South Asian. End of story.
Others have pointed out the special injustice that is involved when a role like Khan gets whitewashed. Khan is supposed to represent the pinnacle of human evolution; to cast a person of color in the role makes a statement, as opposed to the more traditional choice for an ubermensch; a Nordic, Anglo-Saxon type. Also, to take a complex, layered role away from a person of color plays into Hollywood’s habit of giving people of color simple, uncomplicated villains to play, while reserving the meatier bad guys for white actors. But most importantly, to cast a white man in this role shows a total lack of respect for the struggle that is associated with having the name “Khan”, in today’s world. Khan marks you at the airport, and at the border. Khan puts you on no-fly lists and turns you into a permanent person of interest. When Khan finally means something more than all that — that’s when it gets taken away from the real Khans of this world.
I know all of this, logically. I feel the injustice of what’s been done deep in my bones; I wonder what “Star Trek” creator Gene Roddenberry would say, were he alive to see what Abrams has done with the progressive, inclusive universe he invented. None of this is going to stop me from seeing the movie again next weekend. And probably the weekend after that.
I’ve seen people on the internet furiously argue that we have a moral obligation to withhold our dollars from the filmmakers, until they learn their lesson. Self-righteous person after self-righteous person has told me how they’re going to stay at home and watch “The Wrath of Khan” on repeat in protest of Abrams’ bastardization of a beloved story. They should do what they feel is best. Me? I’m going to go see the movie again.
I’m weak, okay? The story has pull over me; I’ll close my eyes to the racism, I’ll swallow my indignation. I’ll even admit that Cumberbatch’s performance was marvelous, the best of the entire film, if it means getting to see Kirk try to reach Spock through the glass window one more time. Real life is hard, and I just want to be able to to lose myself in the world of “Star Trek.” I want to give up the burden of being a conscious person of color, at least until the movie ends.
I recognize this feeling. It’s the same impulse I felt as a child, watching classic episodes of “The Simpsons,” wanting so badly to laugh at Apu, instead of feeling desperately sorry for him. I forced myself to rationalize as hard as I could, telling people that he was my favorite character on the show, telling people that “Yes, that’s what it’s really like to be Indian!”, and praising Hank Azaria’s ridiculous accent — all while wondering if the show was laughing with us, or at us. I want to pretend there’s an easy way around all these thorny questions, but of course there isn’t.
So in the end, that’s probably the real burden of being a person of color who consumes culture. It isn’t the struggle of not seeing proper representation; it’s the fear that your indignation will overpower your enjoyment; that it will take away the emotional outlet that mass media provides. Yet staking out your right to enjoy things carries with it uneasy questions of collaboration. Should a feminist watch a Polanski film? I have no idea. I’m going to take these questions one at a time, because in the end, it isn’t about ideology, or grand ideas. It’s about what you feel is right, and that is, ultimately, a personal question.
Jaya Sundaresh lives in Hartford, Connecticut. She grew up in various parts of the Northeast before deciding to study political science at McGill University. You can follow her on Twitter at @anedumacation.