By Muhammed Hozien
Blade Runner (Scott, 82/92) a complex film with many underlying themes. One of these themes is the issue of race. Race is presented at many different levels in the film that has many other themes such as what it is to be human, vision, disutopia, the environment, nostalgia, ethics, revolt, class struggle, materialism, clutter, etc. to go into any of these themes in detail would require a separate detailed paper for each of the concurrent themes. The film presents L.A. of the future as a hellish place complete with an inferno. The film is also teeming with different races mostly Asians. In this paper I would like to deal with both representations of race, namely the replicants - as the other - a coded non-white race and the various races that we literally see in the film.
Replicants can be seen as race in addition to the various races one finds in the city. This is made very obvious by the opening text:
Replicants were used Off-world as slave labor, in the hazardous exploration and colonization of other planets."
As well as voice over commentary  of the original film's release. Bryant calls the replicants "Skinjobs" and Deckard compares this to calling a black man a "nigger".
Even without this reference the advertising blimp that is constantly hovering above the city streets with its intrusive bright lights and sounds beams:
"A new life awaits you in the Off-World colonies. The chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunity and adventure. New climate, recreational facilities.....absolutely free. Use your new friend as a personal body servant or a tireless field hand--the custom tailored genetically engineered humanoid replicant designed especially for your needs."
Further in the end Roy tells Deckard:
"Quite an experience to live in fear  , isn't it? That's what it is to be a slave."
The replicants are made or in racial terms "trained/raised/bred" for a specific task. Roy is made to be a combat leader with high intelligence and super human strength  . He is clearly the group's leader. Pris is a prostitute - your "basic pleasure model" - and dresses the part to ensnare Sebastian  . All the replicants are very strong, at least the escapee's that form the group. Zhora is a prostitute retrained as an assassin who Bryant describes as "beauty and the beast" rolled into one. Leon  is the infantry type and has low intelligence but not without a sense of humor. After beating up Deckard and before his "final blow" he says "Wake up its time to die!" 
Roy's extreme whiteness becomes a metaphor for "blackness" in blade runner. What makes these replicants a symbol for race is not their physical characteristics but treatment by humans. (Buktaman. 2000. p. 76). Another distinction between the races that is made in subtle way is the location where they reside. Tyrell and Deckard live very high up. Deckard lives on 97th floor whereas Tyrell lives on the 700th floor  (Sammon, p. 137). The police station is very high up too. The Bar where Zhora  works is on the ground level. Leon does not live very high up. Sebastatian lives in deserted area away from everyone and it is not clear how high up he lives but given the ending chase sequence it seems very high. 
The law of the land says that it is illegal for replicants to come back to earth and any that do will be terminated. On a superficial level it is a cop story about a bounty hunter that hunts down dangerous fugitives or renegades. These replicants have escaped from off-world colonies. They ran away from their masters and that is similar to the run away slaves of the south in slavery era of American history. Slaves used to run away from their masters to the north to escape their plight. Some were captured by bounty hunters and brought back or killed in the process. Some were made examples of in order that other slaves would not try to escape en masse.
Deckard's life is saved twice by replicants and that transforms him. He promises Rachel that he would not come after her even though his boss informed him that he must. Roy also saves him from falling off the edge of the building. Deckard's transformation is similar to Huckelberry Finn who muses that even if he is going to go to hell for helping an escaped slave "Jim" he is willing to go the distance for this friend  . He takes Rachel away even if it could mean that he will be killed in the process to uncertain future.
Deckard's identity even as a human being is being called into question through out the film. Rachel is responsible for most of the attacks; first she asks him if he ever "retired" a human by mistake; then she asks him if he ever took the Voigt Kampff test  himself. Roy at the end chase of the film teases him about shooting an unarmed man and his supposed "good guy" morals. He even says that he is not a "man" by claiming that his actions are "unsportsmanlike". Gaff at the end says that "you have done a man's job". All these call into question his humanness  .
The film also is not that simple and defies easy categorisation. On another level it could be seen as anti revolt film in which any disturbance to the status quo will be put down violently  . If anyone gets out of line he will be put down with extreme prejudice.
Another reversal that the film does is the emotional dimension. Replicants are not supposed to have feelings however they are the ones who show the most feelings. Everyone else starkly lacks emotions. From Holden when he is testing Leon, to Gaff, to Deckard himself. Roy is the most human of all the characters and shows the full range of human emotions. Roy is compared to both Lucifer and Adam in Milton's "Paradise Lost" and the monster in Mary Shelly's "Frankenstein"  .
Barringer sees this lack of emotion as further credence to racial coding. He sees humans/whites as representing "order, rationality, and rigidity" whereas blacks/replicants as "disorder, irrationality and looseness"  . Further when Rachel finds out she is a replicant her hairstyle changes from being fixed in a tight bun to a natural falling style.
The Voigt Kampff test it self that is determines who is human is designed to illicit empathy for animals and not humans  . It is as if the question of having an emotion for humans is complicated and it is simpler if one considers helpless animals. At another level if one can not even have any sympathy for helpless animals how can one be expected to have feelings for fellow human beings.
Sebastian's place becomes also a mirror for the movie. Here has his very own replicants which he calls friends. They are his mistakes  from work. His place becomes a microcosm created in Sebastian's vision of the ideal world where the replicants coexist side by side with humans in harmony. This dream is crushed when Roy kills him at Tyrell's home. Barringer states that "Tyrell and Sebastian  not only masters but also their slaves' creators, paradoxically increasing the closeness they feel to their creations while reinforcing the creator's distance: if I made it, it must be a thing." (Barringer, p. 14).
Sebastian's attitude  towards the replicants is similar to that of engineer to a mechanical contraption. Upon learning that Roy and Priss are replicants he asks them to show him something that they can do instead of trying to understand them. He follows this comment with "Your so different, your so perfect." (Barringer. P14.)
Roy's murder of Sebastian is quite troubling in which the one person who is willing to help the replicants is eliminated. It is as if this is to serve as a lesson to those that betray their kind will be pay with their life. In the words of one reviewer "one only is made to feel sorry for the replicants in their murder."  (Fitting. 1987. P.344) The only good replicant is a dead replicant which is a very racist when one substitutes the word replicant for any racial subgroup.
The film presents a picture of the future in which "the technocrats think, we'll get it right: we'll program them with a four-year life span to keep them from getting uppity. Even better, we'll make them white." (Barringer, p. 15). The four-year life span is the equivalent to "planned obsolescence" that is built in today's consumer goods  .
In the novel in which the film is based on Deckard becomes more dehumanized as he is hunting the androids whereas in the film he becomes more human due to the kindness they show him  . (Sammon p. 285)
The idea of American as a melting pot of cultures here is materialized literally on the screen. The Los Angles of the future looks very much like the Los Angles of the past, present and the future put together. Everything is here and more, as if it has been over grown its space. There is much clutter, nothing is thrown out and replaced, and everything is recycled, reused in other terms retrofitted. That is why we see the Los Angles of the 40's and 80's with the 21century all in one, layer upon layer. Not only is this in the design of the film but in the sociological make up of races of the city.
You have the Japanese  , Chinese  , Cambodian  , Spanish  , Arab (Egyptian  ), Indian  (Hari Krishna's) and of course white American  . There is a now famous photo of Harrison Ford on top of one of the futuristic cars with Hari Krishna's walking followed by punk rockers. This photo has become an icon and it explains the iconography of the film. All the street scenes are filled with neon lights. Neon whether it is for signs many of which are not in English but in an oriental language. The video billboards that are on sides of huge buildings also feature oriental icons, namely the geisha. There are bright lights everywhere in lieu of the sun. It is as if the sun has been retrofitted with xenon light  .
It is as if you place so much "foreign" culture in the melting pot what you get in the end is not European but Asian. This could be interpreted as xenophobic statement that America of the future will be decadent and oriental, a mere shadow of its former glory. In the city there is a marked lack of blacks  . There are no blacks anywhere  .
English is no longer the "linga franca" of the city. It is as if every language is spoken except English. Everyone understands but few use it. Only the whites speak English a shadow of its former inhabitants.
The other race that is clear is the Asians. This film was produced at the height of the Asian crises. The Japanese economy was in high gear. Note the other two movies that were produced around that same period namely Black Rain and Rising Sun. William Gibbson's Neuromancer that was affected by this film in both the look and the pervasiveness of the Asian culture on American/western culture (Asian Invasion). There are many who consider that Blade Runner as a forerunner for the whole cyberpunk genre. (Bukatman. 2000. p. 74).
Everywhere Deckard went Asians predominated Los Angles of 2019. We see him first at a Sushi bar arguing with the owner over the number of fish on his plate. He is a regular customer and he is well adept at using chopsticks. Signs everywhere are in Asian scripts  . There is Chew, the eye designer who is Chinese. There is also a Cambodian lady who has an Electron microscope in her shop that identifies the scale as snake. He buys Asian liquor from a white woman with defect. The city looks more like Hong Kong than it does Los Angeles  .
The portrayal of race in the film is that of Ghetto dwelling immigrants who settled in Los Angles that work and live in their own enclaves. We see children -or perhaps deformed midgets- playing on top of Deckard's car. These children are not white or foreign, as they do not speak English. We also see a group of Chinese Bike riders pass by as Roy and Leon make their way to Chew's store. At the street level we get to see the ethnic mix where as above the city in the police station and the Tyrell corporation there is no other races except white. It is as if they are - the whites - are in their own world within a world perhaps aloof above the decadent world below. The street level "world" serves as a getaway for the whites; Deckard finds peace; the revelers go Taffay Lewis' Bar and similar establishments. The street level is a place where whites find Hedonistic pleasures as well as mystery and danger.
Many members of different ethnic groups in America have distinguished themselves in all fields. There are black actors, lawyers, Supreme Court Justices, etc. the same is true of many of the other racial groups such as Jews  , Latinos and Asians. The film seems to portray a xenophobic world of the future in which one could say what is the world coming to. A fact should also be taken into consideration is that the Los Angles of the future is a decadent world that is no longer fit for humans to live in. From the opening show we are seeing Hell on Earth literally  . Even by the end of the film we are not sure if the non-white races have made Earth a hell or if it is a warning that if we are not careful in abusing the environment it will become a city fit only for third world people and other outcasts.
Author's note: There are many notes in this paper that are crucial to understanding of the text above. I would appreciate anyone having any comments on the above to e-mail me directly at email@example.com.
Written by Muhammad Hozien
The voice over commentary is helpful however it was overkill for some scenes. There are some rather memorable lines such as: "Replicants were not supposed to have feelings and neither were blade runners"; "They don't advertise for killers in the newspapers"; and when Roy dies: "I don't know why he saved my life. Maybe in those last moments he loved life more than he ever had before. Not just his life, anybody's life, my life. All he'd wanted were the same answers the rest of us want. Where did I come from? Where am I going? How long have I got? All I could do was sit there and watch him die." ↩
Leon also says to him about the experience of living in fear but does not mention slavery. He does mention an "itch that you can't scratch" but that refers to the limited life span of four years. ↩
All the replicants are of the highest physical rating, as for intelligence Roy is "A" level; Pris and Zhora are level "B" whereas Leon is level "C". (Sammon p. 121.) In racial coding he is the equivalent to Malcolm X (Barringer, p. 14). ↩
She wears a dog collar, heavy makeup, fur coat over miniskirt and fish net stocking. (Barringer, p. 14). ↩
An equivalent to marginally-skilled worker whose historical antecedent is a field hand or street thug. (Barringer, p. 14). ↩
He also has another line when he grabs Deckard, "How long do I have to live? that is longer than you"! ↩
I am not sure of floor number and I can no longer find the reference. I thought it was in Sammon but could not find on the second look. If anyone knows the floor number that he lives on let me know. ↩
Zhora is an exotic dancer and her act is that of Middle Eastern flavor. Although when we hear the announcement for the dance once gets the impression from the accent of the announcer, the mentioning of sand. This is sort of feeding on the west's fascination with the image and mystique of "Orient" namely of the Middle East. Also note that the music that is played is distinctly of a Middle Eastern flavor. ↩
This distinction of up/down and high/low is made in David Desser's article "Race, space and class: The politics of SF film from Metropolis to Blade Runner" in Retrofitting Blade Runner p. 110-123. He also compares this with Metropolis where the workers live underground and the ruling class lives up in the high towers above ground. ↩
I could not find the reference for this but I remember reading it as example of friendship in Mark Twain's Novel "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". ↩
A test of empathy that focuses on the eye to look for emotional reactions based on hypothetical situations. Basically the test can determine who is human or not. Deckard throws doubt on the test in his meeting with Bryant in the film. "What if the test doesn't work?" Deckard says and Bryant remains silent with I don't know kinda of look on his face. ↩
Also the pictures [used by replicants religiously in the film] that he has on his piano; the unicorn dream and the unicorn origami figure [an infusion of Japanese culture in deep seated psyche of the residents of Los Angeles of the future] that Gaff leaves as his signature. ↩
Fitting, Peter. Futurecop: The Neutralization of Revolt in Blade Runner. Science Fiction Studies. Volume 14, November 1987. ↩
Desser, David."The New Eve: The influence of Paradise Lost and Frankenstein on Blade Runner."In Retrofitting Blade Runner. pp. 53-65. ↩
Actually Barringer notes Dyer as the source of this insight. In the copy of the article that I have I am missing the final page of the article in which this reference is mentioned; see page 118. ↩
This is reported by Barringer p. 14. However it is exclusively true. Leon blows a fuse when he is asked about his mother. The role of animals is more important in the novel then in Film. It is interesting to note that each character is associated to animal. See the Blade Runner FAQ. In a significant break with the novel the film contains no real animals. All animals are bio engineered replicants. ↩
Ridley Scott told William Sanderson this as reported in Paul Sammon's Future noir. P. 144 ↩
Barringer also compares them to the historical equivalents of "Bad Massa [Master] / Good Massa". P. 14. ↩
It is interesting to note a few personality quirks of Sebastian. He lives alone in an abandoned sector/building. It could be that this place that he lives in is of some nostalgia for him where others have all left. He refuses to let go to the very end. Perhaps he is one of those diehards who never abandon their place of birth or where they were raised up. It could also that due to his genetic defect he shuns company but allows himself to be used by others. Also note the fear and fascination of the replicants. In the novel he finally loses all sympathy for them when he sees them torturing a spider and sees them for what they are a simulacra, a mere copy. In the film, when Roy kills Tyrell Sebastian just stands nearby in awe and fear, perhaps a bit of spectatorism on his part. ↩
Riddly Scott in an interview with Paul Sammon had mentioned that he had wanted to film a scene that would take place early in the film. This would have led to the audience to empathize with the plight of the replicants but was forced to not to film it for budgetary reasons. See Sammon p. 381. That said the film should be judged based on the finished product. ↩
This idea according to Hampton Fancher came from meeting his friend the actor -Dennis Hopper- who was driving a converted yellow taxi cab when asked why he was driving this vehicle; he stated that it was the only one that did not have built in obsolescence. See Sammon who interview Fancher early in the book. ↩
I believe this comment is made by Philip K. Dick himself as quoted in Sammon. ↩
The Sushi master who argues with Deckard. ↩
Roy interrogates Chew the eye designer. ↩
A female in the film she helps Deckard identify the scale as snake skin and not fish as he originally thought. ↩
Gaff, he is an interracial character of a varied racial makeup. Note his blue eyes; black hair; his style of dress; use of cane; his mustache all which serve to create quite a devilish and foreboding look. ↩
Abdul Ben-Hassan, the Egyptian snake maker played by an unaccredited actor, who looks like "M. Ferrare" the Fez wearing Sidney Greenstreet from Casablanca. There is also Arabic music in the background when we see Abdul on screen and a female singing: "O my kind heart" He is the only Arab seen in the film. He wears a Fez that was worn by upper class Egyptians at the turn of the 19th century while under Ottoman Turkish rule. Note that Abdul is not a complete name but a truncation of double name. Abdul means "worshiper of" it is always followed by one of the names of God. Christian Arabs also adopted this mode of naming hence that name Abdul-massiah "worshiper of Christ". ↩
One of them looks distinctly of Indian origin. ↩
Deckard passes by a blonde haired blue-eyed women in a taxi while chasing Zhora. Also the clientele of Taffy Lewis' bar are all white Americans. ↩
Sammon mentions that the production team had used very bright xenon light the ones used to light sky for major advertising events -it was also the for bat signal in Batman movies. ↩
Barringer states they are two black females at Taffy Lewis' Bar. (p. 13.) ↩
According to Barringer p. 13 he states that they were exterminated perhaps through involuntary sterilization an idea that Dick had used in his other novels. ↩
Many are in Neon while the walls contain many graffiti in Chinese. They are wishing people good fortune and peace. See Sammon. ↩
There is an article in Science Fiction Studies comparing the Los Angles of Blade Runner to Hong Kong. ↩
Dresser -in his article "Race Space and Class"- points out that there is deliberate attempt on the part of the director to suppress the Jewish character of Tyrell, Rachel and Sebastian. Further there is no mention of Jews anywhere in the film. ↩
In the script it is even mentioned as Hades. ↩