M.I.A. released a video on Monday (April 26) for her new single ‘Born Free’. Taking the form of a nine-minute short film, the video depicts the rounding-up and murder of a group of young red-headed boys in a desert somewhere in the USA.
It’s violent, gory, definitely NSFW, and deserving of discussion on so many levels.
To start with, it’s a brilliant piece of political commentary. By setting the video in an average-looking, if rather bleak, American town, M.I.A. and director Romain Gavras ensure that those of us living in the West imagine ourselves in the position of the film’s characters. The scenes of US policemen (soldiers?) invading apartments in a block of flats and barging in upon very private moments (smoking drugs, having sex) force us to consider how we’d react to such intrusions, as well as making us realise how all-encompassing a war-like situation can be. No-one is safe; everyone is at risk. One wrong move and you, too, could be hit over the head with a gun in your own home by the law enforcement officials of your own nation.
It’s a pretty clever premise - the idea of what many have semi-ironically termed a ‘ginger genocide’. And it certainly works to great effect in the video. The boys and young men all look vulnerable, oddly ethereal and other-worldly. And they certainly stand out against the grey town, the sandy desert, and the harsh black uniforms of the American policemen. Which, I suppose, is the point - their easily-identifiable characteristic makes them the target.
Some commentators have suggested that the video is connected to the new anti-immigration laws in Arizona. Personally, I think it’s unlikely, and is merely a coincidence. I think the American setting is primarily a way of bringing the video’s message (that genocide is often baseless or is at least founded on a constructed threat) into closer comparison with viewers’ lives. It’s much more likely to be a statement on the situation of the Tamil population in Sri Lanka, especially considering M.I.A.’s background and previous work. The ‘Born Free’ single cover makes the link clearer, incorporating an image of a 2009 extrajudicial killing of Tamil men in Sri Lanka. Other incidents are obviously likely to have had an influence, however, too, such as the debate over the Armenian genocide and the treatment of prisoners by American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan.
I like that we don’t know why red-headed people are being targeted. Giving the audience no background information on the situation is a smart directorial decision. It plays off the fact that real life security threats are often constructed by governments and militaries, with little to no grounding in any biological fact. That is, there is no intrinsic link between a minority group’s primary identifier - in this case, red hair - and the threat they apparently pose.
Zach Baron at The Village Voice comments that he can think of “no goofier political allegory than the persecution, abuse and murder of redheads”. I think he’s missing the point.
I agree that the targetted minority’s identifying trait of red hair means the situation in the video is very unlikely to actually occur in real life. However, I feel that this makes the premise all the more effective, because we recognise that despite the ribbing red-heads often receive in the West, no-one would actually go so far as to carry out a genocide against them. The very idea of a red-headed genocide seems ridiculous to us, because we know that having red hair does not the same character traits or political leanings make.
Yet this is exactly what genocide is based upon: the theory that certain ethnic, racial, religious or other minority identifiers indicate some intrinsic group likeness. Genocide is about the division of people into ‘us’ and ‘them’, whether ‘them’ be Tamil, Hazara, Armenian, Kurdish, Karen, Timorese, communist, non-communist, the intelligenstia, or the red-headed.
The brilliance of ‘Born Free’ is precisely the fact that it is unimaginable. A genocide against red-headed people is unthinkable to us. What we need to remember is that once upon a time, genocides against Tamils, Armenians and Timorese were unthinkable for members of those groups, too.
I was looking for analysis on this video and Kate kindly linked me to her Tumblr (I’m a few days behind on Tumblr reading). I asked on Twitter why all the default responses I saw to this video were "HAHA RANGAS”. Are we that unsophisticated? Is it easier to turn this into a Summer Heights High episode, than confront issues of apartheid, genocide and racism? I’m disappointed that anyone could respond with apathy or humour after this powerful video.
Thanks Kate for such a great analysis.
See also: M.I.A.’s ‘Born Free’ / Suicide’s 1977 ‘Ghost Rider’ from claytoncubitt