Racism, Postcolonialism, and Neocolonial Zombies: Resident Evil 5

Curator's Note

Racism, Postcolonialism, and Neocolonial Zombies: Resident Evil 5
 Released March 13, 2009, Capcom’s Resident Evil 5 was consumed by videogame enthusiasts and critics alike. For gamers, the latest installment paid homage to the characters and plots that made the Resident Evil series (which debuted in 1996) a multimillion dollar, film-spawning phenomenon. In many ways a “return to basics,” the original heroes Chris Redfield, Jill Valentine and primary villain Albert Wesker were back 
For critics, the game’s setting and primary zombie enemy proved contentious. Central to the game’s controversy was its West Africa locale. Wall Street Journal reporter Jamin Brophy Warren noted that for many critics, the image of “a white man [Chris Redfield] shooting black Africans evoked troubling memories of the age of Western colonialism.” Indeed, at stake in such critiques were the game’s racial politics, which from the outset forced Resident Evil 5 designers to include non-white hero characters (e.g. West African Sheva Alomar) and non-African villains.
Such criticisms bring to light additional questions about the zombie narrative genre, critical race readings of Resident Evil 5, and its currency within a neocolonial imaginary. If the very term allegedly emerges from a West African voodoo practice, then Resident Evil 5’s setting indirectly accesses this original premise. What the zombie embodies – a soulless, dead subject – powerfully recalls the colonial condition of slavery. Set in a world of abandoned oil fields, extreme poverty, and rampant disease (in the form of an instantaneous zombie virus), Resident Evil 5 also makes visible an even more troubling present.
Within a milieu of neoliberal policies and politics, which engender unobstructed exploitative access to African nation-states, the game’s zombies (the corporate product of biotech company “Tricell”) embody the collateral damage of “Western colonialism,” which continues to shape the proverbial “third world” through transnational flows of capital and all-or-nothing-profit. Taken together, the appropriate question is not whether or not Resident Evil 5 is racist. Instead, the question to ask is why asymmetrical racial hierarchies persist. In this regard, Chris Redfield provides a provocative answer at the beginning of Resident Evil 5’s narrative: “capitalism.”


interesting but troubling to hear of this game with its African context and reiteration of colonialism.  I appreciated your clear and helpful analysis.  How interesting that the game itself points to capitalism as the culprit for the state of affairs.  Is this the ultimate in cynicism or an invitation to diagnose and perhaps re-imagine the global system?  This question would be hard to determine.  Like so many consumer products, perhaps the game co-opts and preempts critique to render it politically neutralized—so we can go back to playing it . . . and buying the next version. 


I worry that many in the game's audience may take up a distant, cynical pose.  I can imagine that many people -- particularly in Resident Evil's audiences -- won't dispute character Chris Redfield's statement that "Capitalism" is an evil (symbolized by the Umbrella Corporation and its metastasized form, Tricell).  Resident Evil has, so far as I can tell, a consistent anti-corporate theme.  But, the alternatives it offers seem either bleak or fantastical.


On the bleak side, RE5 proposes that, without the imperial hand of Capitalism or Umbrella to control Umbrella's weapons, the situation will become even more unstable -- the weapons may fall into the hands of groups who, while less powerful than Umbrella, are also less predictable and less White.  Faced with a choice between large entities who're invested in the status quo or small disruptive and chaotic entities whose goals might be unclear, I see an implied choice:  Better than a few giant corporations with clear if nefarious goals should have these weapons than a whole bunch of Brown people with unclear and diverse goals.  Of course, those aren't the only two options -- and that's where the gameplay comes in.


On the fantastical side, RE5 offers gamers the opportunity to be the hero who saves the world from both White Capitalism (seen in this clip as the villain Albert Wesker) and from Brown militants (both alive and undead).  Using renegade violence, of course.  But, as a solution to real world problems, this isn't feasible.


But, there are other alternative approaches and other parties who're less seen, both in real life and in RE5.  For example, indigenous resistances who're trying to build more peaceful alternatives to both Capitalism and terrorism or ethnic nationalism or tribalism.  But, these voices seem to go mostly unheard, their characters unseen.  In RE5, there's at least a nod to this in the African character, Sheva Alomar.  But, because the gamer is the hero, with Chris Redfield as the White male avatar, Sheva must be paired with Chris, dependent on him for rescue and perhaps for an implied romance.  So, the lone White male hero has his place, helping Brown women rescue themselves.


As for real life, I wonder about the practical ways that "Global Northerners" who want to be allies to people in the Global South can be good allies without casting themselves in the role of the Great White Savior and casting the Global South as a Brown woman who, despite her strength, still needs a strong White man to find her way to safety.  

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