Blood Quantum. 2020.
Directed & Written by Jeff Barnaby.
Starring Michael Greyeyes, Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers, Forrest Goodluck, Kiowa Gordon, Olivia Scriven, Stonehorse Lone Goeman, Brandon Oakes, William Belleau, Devery Jacobs, Gary Farmer, Felicia Shulman, Marc Assiniwi, & Natalie Liconti.
Rated R / 96 minutes
The following essay contains significant spoilers!
Do not read, lest ye be spoiled.
Jeff Barnaby’s a much needed, unique voice in Canadian cinema. His first feature Rhymes for Young Ghouls brought to life a story that echoed with Indigenous pain from the horrors of residential schools in Canada, turning an atrocious piece of history into an entertaining, emotional, and many times funny film. He’s done several shorts, one of which is the powerful Etlinisigu’niet featuring music by the excellent Tanya Tagaq. Best of all, his work is proudly filled with Indigenous culture, faces, and language.
We’ve seen plenty of Native stories being told on film over the years by white artists, many times substituting Indigenous people for whites in makeup, or Asians they think ‘look Native’ (eat shit, Wind River!). Very few have actually been told by those within Indigenous communities. Barnaby’s Mi’gmaw, born and raised on the Listuguj reserve. In June of 1981, he watched with his own eyes as the Sûreté du Québec conducted illegal raids on his community in an attempt to hobble and outright destroy Indigenous fishing rights— filmmaker Alanis Obomsawin documented the raids and their aftermath in 1984’s Incident at Restigouche. Some of Barnaby’s own experiences, as well as Obomsawin’s documentary, live on in his latest stunning film.
Blood Quantum tells an apocalyptic zombie story set in the early 1980s on the Red Crow Reserve, where the Indigenous population suddenly find themselves confronted with an outbreak of the undead. The catch? Those on the reserve are the only ones immune to the virus. This means white people— both alive and dead— are all DYING to get onto the reserve. The reserve’s lawman Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) has to protect his community, alongside his estranged son Lysol (Kiowa Gordon), his nurse ex-wife Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers) and their son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck), and anyone else who can wield a weapon. Joseph’s pregnant white girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven) is among the survivors on the rez. Her presence brings resentment from some, due to the uncertainty of what will happen when she gives birth and because she insists on helping other whites who show up at the reserve.
Will the Red Crow residents survive the zombie onslaught? Or will they find their lands, once more, taken over by white people and ravaged by colonialism a second time?
Despite the zombie sub-genre of horror being worn down to its nubs— in part because of The Walking Dead‘s runaway popularity and just as much because every low budget filmmaker wants to make their own Romero knockoff— Barnaby’s film is a special piece of work for bringing such clear, necessary sociopolitical themes to the fore. Blood Quantum‘s title alone is loaded with Indigenous resistance, as Barnaby turns settler colonialism back onto itself with what is at its core a bloody, vicious satire. The infection in this film is not simply a zombie virus, it’s whiteness and everything it entails: colonialism, patriarchy, and, most of all, the destruction of our natural world.
“Because this planet we’re on is sick of our shit”
Barnaby has used animation in his feature films to great effect, which starts Blood Quantum off with starkly contrasted images of Indigenous ways of life versus the modern capitalism of whiteness. The animated image (seen above) depicts a pregnant Indigenous woman atop a grassy mound, the roots of the Earth intertwined with her like she’s a physical part of the soil itself. In the background are the smokestacks of modernity, the Industrial Revolution rearing its head, and the pregnant woman— symbolic of Mother Earth— holds herself as if trying desperately to protect the next generation growing inside her. This image’s themes run throughout the film when we watch folks on the rez fighting tooth and nail to protect their last vestige of untainted land, as well as their culture, against the encroaching dangers of whiteness and settler colonialism’s effects.
Blood Quantum as a title is already at work deconstructing colonial constructions of Indigeneity. For those whites who don’t know, blood quantum laws have been used by settler colonialists to define Indigeneity by a percentage of ancestry— essentially, white government decides who is or isn’t considered Indigenous, stripping whole communities and the individuals within of their natural human rights. When Barnaby uses this as a title for a film in which Indigenous people are immune to a zombie plague he’s rightfully, and hilariously, spitting in the eye of colonialism by turning the tables. Whereas blood quantum laws had violently oppressed Indigenous peoples for hundreds of years, it’s now, via Barnaby’s film, a saving grace for the oppressed. Indigenous blood and Indigenous land are necessary for survival. White people who previously ignored human rights issues in Native communities, like they continue to do today (just one of too many examples), are now desperate to get onto land their ancestors stole and their government neglects. The irony’s perfectly brutal, and as horrific as it is genius.
In relation to the blood quantum construct, Barnaby’s film is a crash course in whiteness as a racial identity. The dangers whiteness poses to Indigenous people is on display through the very premise of the film being that whites are the ones carrying the zombie virus. The vast majority of whites are incapable of seeing whiteness as race, or unwilling to, and how it’s detrimental to other cultures / races. White people have historically seen race, whether it’s in Asians, black people the world over, or Indigenous folks, as being indicative of criminality and other negative attributes, whereas the majority of whites refuse to recognise the damaging effects embedded in our own racial identity. In a day and age when people like Colten Boushie continue to bear the brunt of whiteness, a film like Blood Quantum offers strong and outright sociopolitical allegory, plus a lot of subtle work between the lines. It’s a smart, economic zombie film in 96 minutes.
Kind of like our current COVID-19 pandemic, in that you may look and seem healthy but you could be a carrier, so does whiteness operate here. In the film’s context, you may look and seem like a friendly white, but you’re a carrier of the virus. The same goes for real life. You may appear a white ally to POC on the outside. Nevertheless you could likewise be a “time bomb” like Lysol suggests, just one vague racist act or remark away from revealing what lies dormant inside waiting to escape. We constantly see supposed well-meaning whites making either conscious or oblivious racist statements, especially since the advent of Twitter. Among the hordes of the undead, just like among the hordes of ignorant whites online and offline, is someone like Charlie. She recognises her whiteness and its inherent potential danger to the Indigenous people around her. She worries about birthing a monster into the world: a monster borne of whiteness. We, as whites, must do the same in our everyday existence. We have to acknowledge that even if we aren’t racists ourselves, we bear the burden of whiteness and what it has done / still does to Indigenous people. We must, like Charlie, recognise the danger our racial identity poses to people of other cultures, and we have to do whatever’s possible to mitigate the harms of whiteness, as well as try to teach this to the generations that come after us.
So, what I’m saying is, in a way… Lysol’s right.
Going back to the opening animation of the Indigenous woman as Mother Earth, Blood Quantum doesn’t let men, Native or otherwise, off the hook. Barnaby seems well aware of how patriarchy pervades every aspect of life, including culture and race. He illustrates just as strongly how male issues in Indigenous communities are only made worse by settler colonialism and its many effects. The problems between Traylor, Joseph, and Lysol come to a head later in the film once Lysol and a few others turn against the rest of the community, all because colonialism has started to destroy the reserve further than before by whites wholly infiltrating their land.
Of course the nastiest, most crucial image of colonialism involves Lysol’s penis being chewed off by a zombie. This vividly painful image is symbolic of colonialism’s destruction of Indigenous men. It’s primarily a metaphor for the decimation of Indigenous populations and their cultures. Lysol’s physical manhood being bitten off, likely ensuring, at least in the ’80s, he’d never father any kids, is the figurative killing of a whole generation of Indigenous children before they’re even birthed into the world.
I know what you’re thinking— bit heavy for a bitten off dick.
Such is the violence in a zombie film tackling issues like colonialism and patriarchy, and particularly so when making points about their effects on fathers and their legacies. Although we see Traylor is a fundamentally good guy trying to do right by his community and family, he’s a man whose parenting has shaped his sons in dramatically different ways, not all of them positive. On one hand, Lysol’s content simply getting through the day with the help of booze and chemicals. On the other, Joseph wants to be a better father than Traylor so he can raise his child and cauterise a tradition of shitty fathers— the journey of all fathers who hope to be better than their own. Joseph is a microcosm of how some men today are actively trying to not be horrible men, rejecting patriarchal attitudes so that they may hopefully stop and reverse the damage done by their fathers, and their fathers before them (reminiscent of themes in Richard Stanley’s recent Color Out of Space). Lysol’s an example of someone who does care about his community and those in it underneath his raging exterior, but whose methods are tragically misguided because he’s been oppressed due to his Indigeneity and also raised to perpetuate similar poor male choices like his father.
“I want you to tell my grandchild big stories about me”
There’s so much packed into Blood Quantum that a 2,000-word essay doesn’t begin to touch it all. There are issues of colonialism and resistance to it braided through the screenplay— I didn’t explore Traylor’s use of “podunk towns” and how ‘podunk’ is an Algonquian word relating to a specific tribe that was appropriated by white settlers, just another brief illustration of how everything Indigenous gets colonised by whiteness, even(/especially) language. That’s part of the mastery in Barnaby’s film. A legitimately great piece of cinema can entertain and enlighten. There’s something almost more exciting about horror that does both well because of the genre’s visceral nature. Horror ultimately exposes things for what they are, down past the flesh, right to the bone.
Often us whites in Canada like to pretend we’re far better than America in terms of racist oppression. In reality, we’re just as bad, we just don’t broadcast our historical awfulness openly as much as the U.S., leaving the hideousness buried barely below the surface. It shouldn’t be necessary for people of colour to educate white people, yet they continue to take on that heavy workload, if for no other reason than they have to for their own mental and physical well-being. They do it every day in the flesh, at work and on the street, and even more so online through social media. White film makers and writers ought to confront their own whiteness via their art, not try to tell stories about historical oppression on behalf of the historically oppressed (did I say fuck you to Wind River yet?). Barnaby delivers a cinematic haymaker to colonialism with Blood Quantum, at once telling a story about / for Indigenous people, and simultaneously speaking truth to the ugly power of whiteness that may just hopefully open up a few pale eyes. And do I ever hope he keeps on swinging.