The idea for this article occurred to me a few seconds into “Life is a Gamble,” track 10 on Marvin Gaye’s score for Ivan Dixon’s Trouble Man. The churning sax and bubbles of Moog rolled over me, and suddenly I was in Los Angeles, circa 2019. I pulled my Blade Runner soundtrack off the shelf and skipped to track five, “Love Theme”. I wasn’t imagining it. Dick Morrisey’s sax was replicating (Replicant-ing?) the opening of “Life is a Gamble” nearly note for note.
As a guy who makes movies, I know that music is only one part of the process. But it’s often the part – perhaps because it comes so late in postproduction – that pulls the disparate elements together and captures the film’s tone. So I wondered, if there’s a kinship between the scores for Blade Runner and Trouble Man, could the film have other affinities with blaxploitation? What if Blade Runner isn’t, as it’s usually described, a futuristic film noir, but a futuristic blaxploitation film?
Some parallels are pretty clear. The Replicants are slaves, bred for labour (Brion James’ Leon), military service (Rutger Hauer’s Roy), domestic duties (Sean Young’s Rachael) or not-so-euphemistically for “pleasure” (Daryl Hannah’s Pris). They are not judged by the content of their character, but by the fact that they are “skin jobs”.
The advertorial zeppelins that appear throughout Blade Runner exhort, “A new life awaits you inthe Off-World Colonies! A chance to begin again in a golden land of opportunityand adventure!” But we’re hip to the lie: transports to the Off-World Colonies are slave ships to extra-planetary plantations, at least for Replicants. If they’re obedient, they’re allowed to run out their four-year life spans in quiet kiroshi. But if they want more – more freedom, more rights or simply, as Hauer’s Roy puts it, “more life”- they run up against The Man.
And in Blade Runner, as in any good blaxploitation film, The Man is a policeman: Harrison Ford’s Deckard, the titular Blade Runner. What makes the film really interesting, though, and strengthens the blaxploitation interpretation, is that Deckard is himself a Replicant. (Yes, I know the debate still rages, but I’ve made peace with the fact that he has an incept date and implanted memories). He’s oblivious to the fact, self-denying, you could even say, “passing”, Imitation-of-Life-style, but he’s as much a blaxploitation protagonist as John Shaft, Jesse Crowder or Slaughter. In the world of Blade Runner, genetics is identity, but so is
perception. It’s a Replicant thing. You wouldn’t understand.
The fact that the “Replicant problem” is a manufactured one is also important. The film’s tagline, “Man Has Made His Match… Now It’s His Problem” sums it up. This isn’t just a crime story; it’s a cultural one, a societal one. Like Shaft going up against the white mafia, Friday Foster confronting the “Black Widow” plan or Duke Johnson taking on the redneck forces of Bucktown, the action of Blade Runner takes place in the context of a larger class/race struggle. The Tyrell Corporation motto, “More human than human” is 2019’s “Black is beautiful.”
The plot of Blade Runner comes loosely from Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, but the title comes from William S. Burroughs’ Blade Runner, A Movie, a narrative of the collapse of social services and the national ghetto-ization of America. This is the world as Watts, the world as Harlem. The setting of Blade Runner bears this out: it isn’t the urban grime of the noir era, it’s the urban decay of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The Bradbury Building, location for numerous noir films and television shows, becomes, in Blade Runner, a crumbling, garbage-strewn sieve, an emblem of inner-city decay.
And yes, I know that all the Replicants in the film are white. Pristinely, bleached-blonde-ly white. So white that some of them are Dutch. But it’s not so much a matter of melanin as it is of minority status. The Replicants are a (sub)class of people, and they’re marked by their skin colour. The city around them is polyglot melting pot of pureed ethnicities, and against this backdrop, their eugenically white skin makes them conspicuous targets. Call it photonegative profiling.
I may be on to something here, or I may be on to nothing. For the record, my friend Sean O’Neill, who knows more about film scores and soundtracks than any man who’s lost his virginity has any right to, thinks my whole premise is crazy. Then again, he also pronounces “Vangelis” with a hard “g”.
But that’s the thing about film. You sit in a room with dozens, even hundreds of other people, and even though you all watch the same images and hear the same dialogue and music, every person sees a different movie. Every example of the Seventh Art supports multiple interpretations, by you, me, even the filmmaker. If Ridley Scott can reinterpret, producing director’s cut after director’s cut, then so can we.
Ian Driscoll is a contrarian. No, I’m not.