Racism in Australian Zombie Movie, “Cargo”
Cargo (2017), a post-apocalyptic zombie movie, had a lot of potential. However, it was poorly executed.
Cargo has interesting elements. That it’s an Australian movie makes it fresh. We get a taste of Australia’s culture, social predicaments, and stunning topography. All very cool. But there are serious problems with the plot.
One of the main problems with Cargo is that the protagonist doesn’t seem to be going anywhere or doing anything particularly special. He is a passive character. Things just sort of happen to him, and he’s along for the ride, protecting his baby.
Unfortunately, the story seems to be driven by symbolic social statements on behalf of the directors, rather than character and plot-driven choices. While symbolic social statements can enhance art, when it comes to Cargo, they come at the expense of the film.
Next, I’ll outline what Cargo got right and wrong so you know what you’re getting into:
Here’s what Cargo got right:
- The Australian setting was gorgeous
- Australian cultural hegemony was a unique twist on the zombie genre
- The zombie makeup was awesome
- Martin Freeman was phenomenal
- All the actors were great except for the baby, who was a baby, which, you know
- Great cinematography, especially the scenes with Vic and the headlights on his vehicle
Here’s what Cargo Got Wrong
- Useless characters took up valuable screen time
- Protagonist seemed to have no real drive or goal from scene to scene
- Overly blatant symbolism ruined the movie
- The director’s agenda was distracting
That’s the overview. Now let’s take a deeper dive.
Racism in Zombie Movies
The overarching theme of Cargo is humanity. Humanity (or lack thereof) is a staple in the horror zombie genre, from Negan in The Walking Dead to that crazy guy who lived upstairs in #Alive. “Humanity” worked for these films, and it was a great choice for Cargo, too.
When you think about humanity as a theme in zombie horror, you probably think of people killing each other, feeding each other to zombies, or making selfish, cowardly decisions at the expense of others. But when it comes to man’s inhumanity to man, racism is a core consideration, too.
Think back to Season 1 of The Walking Dead, and you’ll remember Merle Dixon, Daryl’s brother, and his racist treatment of T Dog. Or we can go even further back in time to the most important zombie movie of all time, 1986’s Night of the Living Dead, in which Duane Jones, the movie’s only real hero, and also the only African-American, dies tragically at the end. For cultural and historical context, Night of the Living Dead was released the same year Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated.
So, racism in a zombie apocalypse is as natural to horror movies as honey bees are to spring flowers. They meld. They gel. They work.
But Cargo handled it poorly.
How Cargo Got it Wrong
I have three main problems with Cargo. First is the protagonist’s motivation. Second is the overt social symbolism. Third is the appearance of useless characters.
“His mission is crystal clear: to protect Rosie.” –
— Netflix description of the movie (quote up to date as of May 26, 2021).
To me, the fact that Netflix has to go out of their way to say what, exactly, the protagonist’s motivation was, strikes me as funny. Because from scene to scene, he didn’t exactly seem motivated to do anything in particular.
And there’s no change. No growth. He leaves the movie the same milktoast way he came in.
When Martin Freeman finds out that his wife has been bitten, he refuses to accept it. Actually, he’s annoying about it. Here is the last part of the story where he makes any independent decisions: a refusal to accept the truth that his wife is turning into a zombie.
More on that later.
The point is, Martin Freeman doesn’t have any kind of “a-ha moment” where he suddenly realizes he’s been such an idiot all along, like maybe he just needs to learn to accept that there is suffering in the world, or that the world isn’t fair, etc. Instead, he just kind of bumbles along through the story trying not to get his baby killed.
I believe that, for the protagonist’s motivation to have been clear, events should have threatened the baby’s life directly, who was never in any real danger, except when that idiot Vic tried to snap her neck at the climax of the story. But again, being that that was the only time she was ever really in danger, it failed as a climactic scene (although in fairness the shock value was actually pretty good).
The Clever Man and The Nurse
Okay, here are two completely useless characters who should have been cut from the script.
Who is the clever man? Why should I care? There’s no answer to these questions. “The Clever Man” is unimportant to the story. He’s seemingly thrown in as an afterthought. Yay, indigenous peoples. But again, at the expense of story. He’s in like two scenes and doesn’t say or do anything. What a waste of time. In my opinion, this is “Noble Savage” bullshit.
The nurse is likeable, but she’s nothing more than a cog in the wheel of the story. Her entire purpose is just to send the protagonist from one mission to the next. Why not skip the middleman? The nurse’s only purpose was to send Martin Freeman back to Thoomi, whom he had already met. Why not just have the two of them band together?
At the end of the day, cutting both The Clever Man and The Nurse would have given us more time to get to know Thoomi, the girl, and also Vic, the bad guy.
There was also a family who you saw at the beginning. Near the end of the movie, you see them again, and the dad kills everyone before turning the gun on himself. Why is this in here? They literally serve no purpose.
Again, I think the director should have cut them to make room for character development elsewhere.
Social Symbolism in Cargo
When I was in the 10th grade, I had an English teacher. One of the bad ones. You know the kind. They shove setting and symbolism and theme down your throat until your love for reading dies like a place where it never rains.
She’d go on, in her nasally voice, “the green light by the water symbolizes Gatsby’s hope for growth and renewal…” And it would, of course, be on the test.
And she would have a fucking field day with Cargo.
Maybe I’m channeling her here, but basically, I see Cargo as a symbol for how to fix social inequality and make social justice in Australia.
I neither agree nor disagree with that sentiment. I’m not even Australian. I just think that’s the message writers/directors Ben Howling and Yolanda Ramke wanted to get across.
As I mentioned earlier, I found the overt symbolism in Cargo overbearing and distracting.
Well, here’s my interpretation of the symbolism in Cargo:
Symbolic Racism in Cargo
Martin Freeman plays the protagonist brilliantly. He captures the nuances of his character. There was one thing he needed to get right above all else: that his character was in complete denial of human suffering.
He illustrates this character flaw of his when he denies his wife’s right to end her own life and save her family. He does so with brute force, and he does it because he can’t admit to himself that she’s really going to die. Ultimately, he pays for his choice to control her with his own life, too. He is a symbol for benign misogyny and anti-feminist sentiment, however well-intentioned.
Martin Freeman in Cargo represents all white people who are either too uncomfortable with the thought of human suffering to admit that racism and misogyny exist, or too comfortable in their own lives to do anything about it.
But he is also a sensitive white man with a conscience in a racist, misogynist setting, which sets him apart from Vic, the antagonist.
Symbolic Misogyny in Cargo
“That man is not my husband. That man left my husband to die at the gas plant with everyone else.” -Lorraine
Anthony Hayes’ character, Vic Carter, also represents white men: they take what they want, lord over women, put black people in cages, and protect their personal property with paranoid, gun-toting vigor.
When Andy Rose finds Vic Carter in the pit, Vic immediately trusts him. That’s because they’re both white men.
Andy only gets put in the cage when he tries to “steal” Vic’s “wife”.
Later, Vic has a chance to snap Rosie’s, the baby’s, neck. But he just cries instead. This is ridiculous and completely out of character for him.
But by crying, Vic is acknowledging his toxic masculinity. It is only by facing his toxic masculinity head-on that he can be free.
Rose, the baby, is symbolic of the future of humanity. When Thoomi puts white paint on her cheeks, she is indoctrinating her into her tribal society. This symbol of humanity’s future can only be permitted to live when the old world white male can break down and cry.
It’s an interesting sentiment, and it’s probably true. But it was so stupid in the movie. Vic is a sociopath. I feel that this is the kind of thing that happens when the symbolism takes precedent over the story.
In the last scene, when Thoomi is riding zombified Andy, slavery is reversed. It is only after Andy dies that humanity is redeemed.
At the end of the day, Cargo is a bad movie because the creators put too much effort into social justice themes and not enough effort into plot, characters, and character development.
Cargo was a brilliant idea with great potential that was poorly executed.