In Ready Player One, as in real life, Americans conduct much of their lives in the form of virtual avatars. For some, these avatars aren’t far from airbrushed versions of their own IRL forms. The protagonist, Wade Watts (a boyish Tye Sheridan), appears in the movie’s virtual-reality landscape, known as the OASIS, as Parzival, who has straighter, bluer hair but otherwise shares most of his features. His love interest, Samantha Evelyn Cook (Olivia Cooke), travels cyberspace as Art3mis, who shares her reddish hair and slender build but has supersized eyes and no port-wine stain birthmark around her right eye. In fact, nearly all of the main characters—including the villain (Ben Mendelsohn), whose avatar resembles a malevolent Superman—choose avatars whose gender presentation and skin color match their own.
So it comes as something of a third-act twist when our hero’s best friend and sidekick, who appears in the OASIS as a hulking, bare-chested, deep-voiced mechanic who resembles an orc, turns out to be, in real life, a black woman named Helen Harris, played by Lena Waithe. Some of the audience might have heard this coming: While Aech’s voice is pitch-shifted, offering no audible cue to the gender identity of the player controlling the avatar, the cadences are noticeably black. (The casting was also hidden in plain sight in some of the movie’s publicity materials and on its character posters.) But for many others, Aech’s true identity comes as a surprise, just as it is to her best friend.
This reveal plays out differently in the movie than in the book on which it’s based, and the discrepancies are telling. In Ernest Cline’s novel, Helen explains that her mother thought the OASIS, specifically the opportunity to traverse the game with an avatar of one’s choosing, offered an unprecedented benefit to women and people of color. The tragic elements of Helen’s history—her bout with homelessness after she was kicked out of her house by her homophobic family, her constant financial vulnerability—are painfully familiar and all too real. But in the OASIS, she can escape the aspects of her identity that make her a target of prejudice.
The idea that anonymity could provide an oasis from real-world prejudice is one that was perhaps of the book’s time. Since the best-seller was published in 2011, the same online anonymity that offers a type of freedom for Helen has been wielded to empower trolls, abusers, and racists, a veritable nation of bots and “Dog Avi Twitter.” It was easier to believe in the utopic potential of the cybersphere, of apps and social networks, of the innate goodness of these creations and the men who created them before the rise of Gamergate, the alt-right, and @RealDonaldTrump.
In the movie, nearly all of this context is omitted. Wade first encounters the real-life Helen while he’s on the run, much as he does in the book. When Helen pulls up in her van, filled with the IRL versions of Wade’s video game comrades, to save him, he doesn’t seem to notice or be perturbed by Helen’s identity as a black woman. Or if he does, he’s too polite or preoccupied to say so, a perfect model of white liberal tolerance: He literally does not see race. Samantha’s reaction is different. When she first encounters Helen, she pauses and stares. Helen smiles and mumbles something about not being what Sam expected. Samantha recovers, quashing Helen’s paranoia by stating that she was staring at Helen’s van, not Helen herself.
The casting of black women as humanoid—but not quite human—characters has been somewhat of a trend in Hollywood in the last few years. Zoe Saldana, painted Elphaba-green in the Guardians of the Galaxy movies and appearing via motion capture as the blue-skinned Neytiri in the Avatar movies, is similarly on-screen and not. Likewise, Lupita Nyong’o followed her 2014 Oscar win for 12 Years a Slave by taking a role as the CGI character Maz Kanata, an alien pirate in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, and then again in the sequel, The Last Jedi. In a piece lamenting this development, and citing similar roles for Idris Elba and Paula Patton, Vulture’s Kyle Buchanan concluded, “Idris, Lupita, Paula, and Zoe have faces that matter. Let us see them.”
Buchanan laments the obfuscation of Patton’s “beautiful … mixed race features.” But what if she simply did not wish to be seen? In an interview with BuzzFeed, Nyong’o said her decision to take the part in Star Wars came from a desire to be less publicly visible. In 12 Years a Slave, she played an enslaved woman, Patsy, whose body is increasingly marked by the abuses she suffers from her enslavers. “12 Years a Slave was a film that was so much about my body, and Star Wars is not at all,” she told BuzzFeed. “There was a liberation in being able to play in a medium where my body was not the thing in question.” It’s also possible that the character choices aren’t political at all, motivated by the pursuit of aesthetic or even artistic variety.
What separates Ready Player One is how it begins to pull back the curtain on this phenomenon, but only does it partway. Though the film casts Waithe—who recently became the first black woman to win an Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series for the Master of None episode “Thanksgiving,” which was based on her experiences as a queer black woman going home for the holiday—it does not explicitly reveal her character’s sexuality. At a time when Hollywood blockbusters are only just beginning to introduce gay characters—mostly in supporting roles and with no kissing allowed—it feels like the portrayal of an out, black queer woman, who isn’t just used as sexual fodder for male “femme” lesbian fantasies, may be the final frontier of movie representation.
By omitting the moment where Wade and Aech have an honest dialogue about the vulnerabilities specific to her, and the protection and opportunity she saw in selecting an avatar that intentionally protected her own identity, the movie loses a valuable opportunity to portray the complex reality of virtual citizenship. It seems that here, in the real world, there are some things we’re still not ready for.
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