Cowboys & Aliens: Extraterrestrial Manifest Destiny And Its Enduring White Gaze
By Dali Adekunle
April 12, 2021
On November 15, 2020, NASA and SpaceX partnered to launch a six-month science mission on the International Space Station. Despite the ravages of COVID-19, NASA’s collaboration with this brainchild of Elon Musk, himself a product of an apartheid South African emerald mining fortune, solidifies the “final frontier” as yet another domain for colonial capitalist dominance.
Interstellar (2014), Ad Astra (2019), and the recently released The Midnight Sky (2020) are three films where we witness cinematic portrayals of the near-future that romanticize the motivations behind space exploration. To the average person, it would appear that our society is witnessing a cultural and technological rekindling of 19th century “manifest destiny,” where white men act as humanity’s saviors from an uncertain ecological landscape and as conquerors of enigmatic extraterrestrial environments. Despite the recent events of the global pandemic, global anti-racism movements, unprecedented economic disparities, and climate change, it is more likely that these cultural trends will reinforce inequalities rather than allow us to escape them.
First used in the mid 19th century, “manifest destiny” was coined by writer and newspaper editor John O’ Sullivan in support of the westward expansion and nation-building in yet colonized territories of North America.1 Sullivan’s term justified the “righteousness” of white nativism by employing Protestant rhetoric and imagery. Across the American West, the words of the book of Genesis 1:26-28, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it…have dominion over…every living thing that moves upon the earth,” were distorted to justify the genocidal displacement of Indigenous peoples, the evisceration of native flora and fauna for commercial use, and the arrival of a white land-owning gentry — the only individuals worthy of taming the feral landscape. It was ordained by heaven that all men were not created equal, that some men had to rule and conquer the earth. Colonial Protestantism swept across the North American prairie lands as quickly as horse-drawn carriages could carry it — pages of the Bible mixed with the blood of the enslaved and the displaced.
19th and early 20th century US Presidents were political embodiments of the swift totalitarian power of white nativism. In his 1830 State of The Union Address, President Andrew Jackson rallied nativists with the words, “…what good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?” In a mere twenty years, nearly one hundred thousand Indigenous Americans were removed from their ancestral lands, with estimates of four to fifteen thousand Indigenous Americans dying on their westward journey.2 Meanwhile, the United States’ total population, consisting primarily of white European immigrants and enslaved Africans, nearly doubled from 12.9 million people in 1830 to 23.2 million people by 1850.3
Along with this seismic demographic shift came institutions that upheld white sovereignty and protected white posterity. The latter half of the 19th century saw President Andrew Johnson’s overturn of Special Field Order 15 in 1865, denying formerly enslaved individuals emancipatory land and re-establishing the power of the white landowning elite.4 In that same period, the Chinese Exclusion Act signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, prevented Chinese laborers from entering the United States, reifying American ethnocentrism with strict white European limitations.5 Alien Land Laws that limited land ownership to noncitizens in California, Washington, Oregon, Louisiana, Idaho, Montana, and Kansas only were overturned in the decade following World War II.6 Even supposedly progressive goals of the era, such as environmentalism, conservation, and the expansion of the National Park Service were steeped in white supremacy.
Despite his acclaim as a progressive reformer and naturalist, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in his book The Winning of the West: From the Alleghenies to the Mississippi, “Thus the thirteen colonies, at the outset of their struggle for independence, saw themselves surrounded north, south, and west, by lands where the rulers and the ruled were of different races, but where rulers and ruled alike were hostile to the new people that was destined in the end to master them all.”7 This likely reflected Roosevelt’s sympathies to the eugenics movement and relationships with prominent conservationists with ties to the eugenics movement like Gifford Pinchot (who ran Roosevelt’s national conservation commission).8 It is worth noting that general disdain for the non-white population was common among progressive conservationists of the time, even among the environmentalist philosopher John Muir who helped lay the foundations for federal protection of Yosemite Valley during a camping trip with Roosevelt in 1903.9 Muir’s disdain for both Indigenous and Black Americans is well-documented and influenced the national park service’s policy of expelling Indigenous Miwok tribes from their land.10
Once cinematic technology developed and live film emerged as a dominant entertainment medium, white nativism was codified on celluloid screens. Wild animals, harsh landscapes, and the savage “native” was the recipe with which early Western filmmakers Edwin S. Porter, Cecil B. De Mille, and John Ford seasoned their films of white land-owning men riding on horseback, slinging guns, and taking what was “rightfully” theirs. Hollywood filmmaking served as the reflection of the cultural zeitgeist of the time, and Hollywood filmmakers were simultaneously innovators and gatekeepers of white exploits. While the culture of manifest destiny informed early cinematic conceptualizations of the American West, these ideas merged with later currents of xenophobia and Cold War propaganda in the postwar era. Against the backdrop of coincident industrialization, this ideology germinated science fiction tropes that remain relatively unchanged to the present day.
The films Interstellar (2014), Ad Astra (2019), and The Midnight Sky (2020) are contemporary manifestations of this arc of white nativism. The three films’ main protagonists are unequivocally part of the same demographic that enslaved Africans, genocidally displaced Indigenous Americans, and abused the American west’s resources during colonization. Although the films’ plots are driven by catastrophic climate change threatening to endanger human life, their solutions focus on the dynamics of white fatherhood, white motherhood, and the white gerontocracy.
In the three films, progeny and posterity are overwhelming themes. They are not merely consequential stories of how human ineptitude and deceit can destroy the earth. They are stories of white families that focus on the relationships between white men and their offspring. It is a fitting framework since the submission of the land and people of the American West for “future generations” was rhetoric that was readily employed to rationalize westward expansion 150 years earlier. In all three films, the progeny in question inherit Earth on the verge of collapse. In Interstellar, a blight kills all of the earth’s crops and toxifies the air. In Ad Astra, a deadly energetic force could cause a chain reaction and end all human life. In the Midnight Sky, an unknown radioactive event sends refugee settlements of humans underground and into the orbit and darkness of space.
During a particularly pertinent scene from Interstellar, a dust storm descends on the small midwestern home of Joseph Cooper (played by Matthew McConaughey) while he rushes into his daughter’s room to close her windows. Cooper stumbles into the scene wearing an N95, a piece of personal protective equipment that has become a familiar symbol of 2020. In addition to Cooper’s respiratory gear, the scene’s tone and coloring remind the viewer of burning orange skies that enveloped the Bay Area in September 2020 — forcing residents inside, coughing and shuttering their doors like Joseph Cooper. The Midnight Sky also draws on similar themes of isolation and susceptibility to environmental disease. In an early scene, abandoned scientist Augustine Lofthouse (George Clooney) braves arctic elements to observe a deadly anomaly outside his base: hundreds of birds dying from radiation and glacial temperatures. The scene is paired with the news of NASA pilot Tom Mitchell’s (Kyle Chandler) sons’ radiation ailments which emphasize the earth’s environmental precarity. However, in Interstellar, as in The Midnight Sky, Earth’s humanity is represented by the trials and tribulations of white lives. Yet as we know, the COVID-19 epidemic illustrates a different reality about who bears the brunt of suffering in modern catastrophes.11
According to recent data from the CDC, Black, Latinx, and Indigenous Americans bear the disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths.12 Studies of specific states and cities show that 34% of deaths were among non-Hispanic Black people even though this group accounts for only 12% of the total US population.13 The global pandemic has emphasized social determinants of health, including inequitable healthcare access, economic instability, and environmental racism. Racial segregation has forced low-income communities of color into geographic areas where mobile emissions, oil and gas extractions, water contamination, and waste dumps are commonplace. These environmental influences negatively affect health outcomes, and, according to a recent study published by Harvard University, correlate with COVID-19 morbidity.14 The illnesses that films like The Midnight Sky envision one day impacting white families are in reality ravaging communities of color today. Perhaps in a twist of cruel irony, along with a plethora of supplies and research, the SpaceX launch mentioned above included dosages of the COVID-19 treatment drug Remdesivir to test its antiviral efficacy in microgravity, a reflection of current societal priorities.15 Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities are the most likely victims in the desolate futures of science fiction, and yet their faces are subplots to contemporary storylines.
Indeed, the Black characters in Interstellar, Ad Astra, and The Midnight Sky are tragic foils, and their pain and deaths feel like banal additions. In Ad Astra, veteran actress Kimberly Elise speaks two lines and dies a violent death. Her co-star, actress Ruth Negga, plays Helen Lantos, a brooding orphaned figure at the Mars colony whose sole purpose is to assist Major Roy McBride (Brad Pitt). The Midnight Sky’s Black characters feel marginally more developed; Commander Adewole (David Oyelowo) and flight engineer Maya (Tiffany Boone) have amiable personalities that make the audience root for them. However, the film’s most violent death comes in the second-third when Maya is struck by an asteroid and dies with bloody gravity-defying imagery. Similarly, the primary black character in Interstellar, Dr. Romilly (David Gyasi), dies violently and literally at the hand of a white “Mann,” Dr. Mann (Matt Damon).
In the three films, white fatherhood is sacrifice, white motherhood is redemption, and the white gerontocracy has lost its hope in saving humankind. Three fathers, Joseph Cooper, H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), and Augustine Lofthouse, are all patterned as scientists who pay unimaginable sacrifices for their children. In one scene, a mournful Joseph Cooper admits, “Once you’re a parent, you’re the ghost of your children’s future.” Deeply flawed and captives to their own idealism, they are men who have their sights on what humanity can ultimately achieve.
In Interstellar, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway) plays the role of a maternal figure, the sole individual tasked with recolonizing a habitable planet with 5,000 human embryos. Dr. Brand’s own father Professor Brand (Michael Caine) conceals his true intentions about the survival of mankind from both Amelia and the rest of the world, reinforcing the moral purity of her character. However, in a film completely dominated by white characters fulfilling a clandestine mission, the audience can’t help but wonder about the racial and ethnic demographic of those 5,000 embryos. Similarly, mother and daughter duo Jean Sullivan (Sophie Rundle) and Iris Sullivan (Felicity Jones) of The Midnight Sky are women whose primary purpose is to complete Augustine Lofthouse’s moral arc. In a series of flashbacks, Jean is an ephemeral memory who manages to show Lofthouse grace and love despite his abhorrent behavior, and Lofthouse’s pregnant daughter, Iris, is possibly humanity’s last hope as she returns to a habitable Jupiterian moon.
On screen, white lives are given an intimate interiority and humanity in contrast to Black experiences and Black lives. Film here is a reflection, rather than a product, of societal values, and it should be no surprise that drastically dissonant views of racial and economic progress exist between white families and families of color in the United States. Although white families are substantially more likely to receive inheritances and family support than Black and Hispanic families, and white families have the highest level of both mean and median wealth, according to a 2019 Pew Research study, Black individuals are far more likely to cite discrimination as a major obstacle for black people.16 Only 55% of white US adults surveyed in the study said that discrimination was a major reason why Black people in the country had difficulty advancing. Despite Donald Trump’s blatantly misogynistic and racist presidential administration, exit polls from the November 2020 presidential election showed increased support among white women, highlighting their moral obligations.17
Interstellar’s Professor Brand and Ad Astra’s H. Clifford McBride highlight an aspect of the white gerontocracy that also warrants review. In these films, the elderly have disowned Earth, although they don’t have the courage to admit it to themselves or to the individuals closest to them. Professor Brand lies to his protege and surrogate daughter Murph Cooper (Jessica Chastain) for decades, and H. Clifford McBride executes his crew for their mutinous desire to return to Earth. Augustine Lofthouse himself is an elder at the end of The Midnight Sky and decides to die with the “sinking ship” that the earth has become. White elders do not attempt to salvage the earth but reach for the stars. The investments of billionaires Jeff Bezos with Blue Origin, Sir Richard Branson with Virgin Galactic, Elon Musk with SpaceX, and Paul Allen with Stratolaunch, absent a concerted effort to tackle current climate change, resemble the divestment of these cinematic characters. What do these older white men understand about the earth that the rest of us don’t, and why aren’t their plans for space colonization transparent?
The cultural themes discussed above are not solely a historical residue as they reflect the operation of present-day institutions invested in space travel. For example, despite NASA’s reputation, the institution has yet to address its discriminatory and polemic legacy. NASA’s first Director of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, Wernher Von Braun, was originally a missile engineer for the Nazi German Army. In the book, Von Braun: Dreamer of Space, Engineer of War, Michael Neufeld, the former chair of the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s space history department, describes Von Braun as a young man that whose “inclination toward apolitical opportunism made it easy to work for the Nazi regime” but who “belatedly understood that he was aiding an evil regime.” Even if Von Braun’s disinterest in antisemitism is true, the seminal feat of space travel and the origins of NASA are intertwined with white supremacy. In May 2020, Dr. Ruth Joy Calvino of Clemson University published a paper using
“Case files of the class action lawsuit MEAN v Fletcher, new oral interviews, NASA EEO and administrative archives, and US Congressional hearings…[that] argue that NASA was structurally and systemically racially discriminatory. NASA’s problems were similar to those at other technological agencies, both within the US and globally, but NASA lagged behind other US governmental agencies in both the number and the percentage of minority employees.”18
Additionally, as The New York Times noted in November 2020, “NASA…has so far sent only 14 Black Americans to space out of a total of more than 300 NASA astronauts.”19 The statistics and data show a federal institution far more reticent to diversity, equity, and inclusion than their governmental counterparts. If NASA is to serve as a foundational touchstone for future generations, its current demography does not bode well for Black, Latinx, and other people of color. It is an institution that has done the bare minimum in addressing systemic inequities, and citizens should fear the reproduction of these standards in astronaut training, selection, and the eventual transport of civilians, especially as NASA plans to land another man and woman on the moon in 2024.20
In the end, what is absent from these films illustrates the real issues that will require attention and activism. Climate change has already passed a point-of-no-return, and global societies are grappling with increasing populations of climate refugees. As long as dangerous capitalistic practices continue unaddressed, humankind is barreling toward extraterrestrial habitation much sooner than anticipated. It is an eventuality. So, what would equitable space travel and extraterrestrial habitation look like? It would look drastically different from current housing paradigms. Equitable habitation would have to candidly and verbally address deep housing racism and partner with tertiary organizations dedicated to rectifying housing inequities. Housing would need to be defined as a human right guaranteed to all habitants. Concepts like “land ownership” have to be redefined, and tired “merit-based” ideologies would have no credence because a true “meritocracy” has never existed on Earth. Equitable space travel should not be associated with one’s ability to pay or one’s stakeholdership in companies, and it should be contended within current legislation. What are measures global societies should consider to ensure old patterns of oppression are not reproduced among the stars? A task force composed of an equal distribution of citizens, community-based leaders, and legislators must be given the resources and power to audit national space organizations like NASA and UKSA (United Kingdom Space Agency) and critique the diversity practices of privately-owned organizations like SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic. This would require unparalleled dedication to diversity, equity, and inclusion, that many organizations are already undertaking. Although the task before us is daunting, a twenty-first century space race is well underway, and it is imperative that the populations most vulnerable on Earth are not left behind.
About the Author
Dali Adekunle is a cinephile and a public health director in New York City. She was raised in a Spanish and Portuguese speaking household, and she loves to explore themes of cinematic depictions of labor, healthcare, and culture as it pertains to people of color.
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