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Racism and cynical politics are the real horror in Eli Roth's The Green Inferno

By Dave Schneider

I went into Eli Roth's The Green Inferno with very low expectations. Boasting the tagline, “No good deed goes unpunished,” this 2015 horror film follows the gory demise of a group of college student activists from the U.S. who get captured, tortured and eaten by a cannibalistic tribe in the Amazon rainforest.

When I saw the trailer back in September, I figured it was just a horror movie rehash of the racist cannibal exploitation films of the 1980s. Much to my surprise, it's not. Director Eli Roth desperately tries to offer a subversive critique of Western 'slacktavism' (think Kony 2012). Ultimately though, The Green Inferno ends up perpetuating the same old racist stereotypes about indigenous people, and it promotes a dangerous cynicism about student activism as a whole.

The Green Inferno consists of two acts: the setup and the bloodbath. In the setup, we're introduced to Justine (played to perfection by Lorenza Izzo), an affluent college student in New York City whose father works at the United Nations. Justine becomes involved with a social justice activist group focused on stopping the destruction of the Amazon rainforest in South America. The group embarks on a trip to Peru to prevent a giant multinational corporation from bulldozing a remote part of the rainforest, which is home to an isolated indigenous tribe.

The students disrupt the corporation's plans by tying themselves to trees and live-streaming the action over social media. But they barely get a chance to celebrate before their plan crashes and the surviving activists are taken prisoner by the tribe. From there, the film descends into the bloodiest carnage I've ever seen on film.

Roth really outdoes himself in terms of visceral gore and jaw-dropping visuals. That's really saying something too, considering Roth's envelope-pushing horror past (Cabin Fever [2002], Hostel [2005]). The Green Inferno was so gory that, upon finishing the film, I literally took Pepto-Bismol to settle my stomach. But for as unsettling as I found the film's violence, there's something even more disturbing at work here.

To its credit, The Green Infernodoes a number of things well. The film never lets us forget that corporations pose the primary threat to the environment and indigenous people, even amid the bloodbath of the film's second act. However, Roth never articulates a defense of the land rights of indigenous people or the right of oppressed nations to self-determination. In fact, The Green Inferno undermines those very rights with its racist portrayal of indigenous people. It reminds me of the racist European lies about indigenous cannibalism in Africa and South America used by the ruling class to justify colonialism.

As mentioned above, the film presents itself as a critique of Western non-profit activism and social media 'slacktavism'. The students' entire trip to Peru reeks of a condescending 'Western savior complex' towards indigenous people, instead of genuine international solidarity. True to form, the film's big plot twist reveals that another logging corporation actually bankrolled the whole trip, using the students' naiveté to stop their rivals from acquiring land rights in the Amazon. Most of the students are too busy counting up likes and retweets on their social media accounts to care, and the few that do explain it away as a 'necessary evil'.

Roth's writing may border on cheesy at times, but its not exactly off-base on this point. Almost four years ago, the 'Kony 2012' viral video, produced by the non-profit Invisible Children, took the internet by storm with its record-breaking 100 million views on YouTube. Today, it's plainly obvious that the U.S. State Department used its emotionally charged portrayal of the Ugandan civil war to justify the 2011 military intervention in the region, which continues to this day.

However, even while making these valid criticisms, the film's lack of political clarity plunges it into cynicism. Roth never offers an alternative to the chauvinistic 'slacktavism' of the main characters, even though plenty exist. Student activists in the U.S. have a long history of striking blows against imperialist oppression using tactics far more principled and effective than what's shown in The Green Inferno. For instance, Palestinian solidarity activists on campuses across the U.S. have led the movement to boycott, divest and sanction Israel's apartheid regime, taking a page from the playbook of anti-apartheid student activists in the 80s. Other groups, like Students for a Democratic Society, have mobilized students to oppose imperialist wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and around the world.

This kind of one-sided cynicism is bad for the movement. It's hard to imagine someone leaving The Green Inferno excited and charged up to do more campus organizing and student activism. Especially to the uninitiated, the film leads us to believe that all student activism in the U.S. is naïve and misguided at best, chauvinistic and racist at worst. And that's flat-out false. We need more student activists fighting imperialism, not fewer.

From the outset, he faced criticism from indigenous rights groups, like Survival International, for his racist portrayal of natives. Roth shot most of The Green Inferno in Peru from 2013-2014, using an actual remote indigenous tribe for the film's production. According to producers, the tribe's elders received the screenplay, watched the film Cannibal Holocaust on a projector, and gave their blessing to appear in the film as actors. It's as though Roth thought that by taking these extra steps, his film was somehow less exploitative.

In this sense, the closer analogy to The Green Inferno isn't 80s cannibal flicks but rather Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella. Conrad, a Belgian, ostensibly wrote his book as a criticism of colonialism in Africa. However, as the late Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe pointed out, Conrad's racist and dehumanizing portrayals of Africans in the novel undermined the weak – and Eurocentric – critique of colonialism he attempted to make.

Roth has dismissed criticism of his film's racist portrayal of indigenous people as “simply absurd,” and he claims the real targets of the film are multinational corporations. However, the confused and deeply cynical politics of The Green Inferno actually help imperialist destruction rather than undermining it. Like Conrad, Roth lacks an aggressive anti-imperialist lens to view the world, and in its vacuum, the same old politics of oppression find their way inside.

Frankly, Roth should learn from his mentor and fellow director, Quentin Tarantino. Last year, Tarantino drew the outrage of racists across the U.S. for his outspoken support of the #BlackLivesMatter movement against police crimes. If Roth is serious about opposing the destruction of indigenous people by Western multinational corporations, he should offer principled support to activist groups supporting the rights of indigenous people, both in the U.S. and abroad. But The Green Inferno is not the way to do it.

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