Mad Max: Fury Road has become enormously popular and is one of the first female-led action films to meet this kind of success. Part of this can be credited to the consideration George Miller put into every aspect of the story and production. He consulted feminists to make sure the female characters were fully realized and hired a woman to edit the film so that it wouldn’t look just like every other action film up to this point. He framed each shot in a way that least objectifies and sexualizes the women onscreen, giving a visual component to the mantra “we are not things.” At large it is a film about the dangers of hyper-masculinity and the importance of female empowerment, something Hollywood has desperately needed for decades. The one issue that seems to be brushed over is that of racial representation, as the film has a predominantly white cast.
It’s important to remember that the Mad Max franchise is not only based in Australia, but is aiming to actually depict post-apocalyptic Australia. Considering this, the discussion shifts from racial exclusion and becomes about historical representation in an imagined future. Oftentimes the idea of accurately depicting history is used as a false excuse to cast only white actors, but in the case of Mad Max: Fury Road it is employed as an interesting layer to the story which attention isn’t called to.
There are three women of color playing lead roles in the film: Zoë Kravitz as Toast the Knowing; Courtney Eaton as Cheedo the Fragile; and Megan Gale as The Valkyrie. All three women are mixed race; Kravitz being black and Ashkenazi Jewish; Eaton white, Chinese, and Maori-Polynesian; and Gale white and Maori-Polynesian.
The widespread mixed-race population in Australia has a long history with the Maori people dating back to 1200’s New Zealand. When Europeans came around 1642 the Maori settlement was disturbed for the first time. The British employed a great deal of Maori on their trade ships meaning they now had access to intermingle with English and Australian people, which marked the beginning of the dilution of their genetics. Similar to the history of Europeans and Native Americans, the Maori experienced cultural genocide and died in large numbers due to exposure to new weapons and diseases.
Cheedo the Fragile and The Valkyrie represent two of the futures of many Polynesian women in this situation. Cheedo is forced into marriage for the sake of bearing Immortan Joe’s children, similar to the thousands of Polynesian women who were forced into sex work because they became exoticized tokens of allure. She is the one who briefly tries to run back to the citadel and her old life, because even though it was terrible, it was at least easier to make a secure living from sex work. The Valkyrie actively fights against Immortan Joe’s regime as many people did the same by fighting against European settlers. However, doing so means that she and the other women she lives with are cut off from the few benefits of the Europeans and must fend completely for themselves.
The fact that Megan Gale and Courtney Eaton are mixed race adds to the future setting. Already, almost all remaining Maori come from generations of mixed genetics, so in the future it only makes sense for this trend to continue. Zoë Kravitz’s African-Americanness gives another possible example of the results of generations of colonialism; a product of Europe’s prominent presence in the Atlantic Slave Trade. As one of the wives she represents the same exoticized beauty as Cheedo, and the only other people of color in the film, both black and Polynesian, are seen among the crowds of the lowest class of society. Like most science fiction this represents something not too dissimilar from the way things are in the world right now.
There is no doubt that Hollywood has a race problem. According to the 2014 Hollywood Diversity Report only 10% of leading roles went to people of color and the majority of movies having fewer than 10% of their cast include non-white actors.
So is Mad Max: Fury Road part of the problem?
Zoë Kravitz, Megan Gale, and Courtney Eaton are the only actresses with major roles that aren’t white but there is a narrative reason for this to make sense; George Miller clearly knows what he’s doing. Then the question becomes whether the subtle way it is done is enough, or if a line or two of dialogue giving their backstories could have been more beneficial?
This film is one of the most enlightened action movies we’ve ever seen, but no film can be free of flaws. Miller did something great by casting Maori women in two roles, yet most of the audience assumed they were white. Is it irresponsible to do something like that and leave it hanging, or is it on the audience to know for themselves?
There is often a gap between artistic intent and audience engagement, so it is hard to run the risk of either disrespecting the audience’s intelligence by over-explaining or having things fly under the radar.
Either way, the Mad Max: Fury Road takes a great step in the right direction towards what will hopefully become the new Hollywood.