White Audiences Are Obsessed With Black Martyrdom
Deconstructing the death of the only Black character in “Possessor”
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You might be fooled from the opening of Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor (2020) that this is a Black woman’s story. The film opens on the immaculately laid braids of Gabrielle Graham’s Holly Bergman as she pierces her own scalp with what looks like a digital meat thermometer. As she adjusts the dials on the strange device, she emotes into the mirror, her face briefly sparkling with joy before it gives way to a long, stifled sob.
Holly is the only Black character of note in the movie and perhaps that’s why she has remained with me in the eight months since I saw the film. Even though she is only a footnote in Possessor, a movie otherwise full of striking images, it’s her seven minutes of screen time I return to. I watch, over and over again, as this Black woman dressed in an unsophisticated cerulean uniform stabs the man she’s being paid to serve before dying horrifically in a hail of police gunfire.
Of course when we see Holly on screen it’s not Holly’s character we’re witnessing. It’s a white woman piloting her body—English actress Andrea Riseborough as the mysterious Tasya Vos. Vos works as an elite assassin for a corporate firm that orchestrates murders using a futuristic brain control technology. From a padded bed in a laboratory miles away, she inhabits a stranger’s body, kills the target, and then commits suicide in the possessed body to return to her own.
In the simplest terms it’s a body swap with only one body, viscerally portrayed with abstract aesthetics and droning music. When things go right, it’s a neatly packaged, if elaborate, scheme. There are no loose ends, a clear motive, and a perpetrator who can’t speak in their own defense—a “clean tragedy,” as former assassin Girder put it. But things never seem to go right.
The possession process is strenuous, with each job taking a clear toll on Vos. Coached by a typically cool Jennifer Jason Leigh as her boss Girder, Vos is said to be unique in her ability to commit hits while maintaining emotional detachment. Each murder is intricately structured, with hours of reconnaissance and prep as the team builds a story. They create a pattern of behavior and a motive so that the death, while tragic, does not provoke further investigation. Vos witnesses just enough of a stranger’s life so that she can imitate it, control it, end it. What makes the possession easier is that her targets are people like Holly: people not important enough to arouse suspicion until it’s too late.
After murdering the target, Vos-as-Holly is supposed to then shoot herself, completing the possession and reentering her own body. But she’s unable to pull the trigger, her hands trembling on the grip. Here I think I see Holly emerge, wresting control from Vos, resisting this posh, white woman from an unseen Get Out-esque Sunken Place. I imagine Holly acting on one of our most basic human instincts to self-preserve. One of our most ingrained instincts to resist white dominance.
How often Black people become pawns in plans we know nothing about. Was Holly chosen because she was the only Black waitress? Someone already on the periphery of society, someone whose life and death could go mostly unnoticed? Perhaps they found a background scarred with violence or mental illness, one that would align with the narrative they want to create for the assassination. How easy it would be to create a patchwork of a gritty, Black life that could be used to wave away its violent ending. If Holly’s actions were out of character, and one of her coworkers or friends went to the police about her strange behavior, would anything be investigated?
How rarely Black victims are given the benefit of the doubt. How rarely our murders are called murders, our killers called killers.
And if Vos-as-Holly failed to execute the suicide, there’s no chance of Holly leaving the building alive. Her Blackness is a failsafe. No Black person is politely escorted out of the building in handcuffs after committing murder. No cops are going to offer her some pizza on their way to a prison cell. Holly points her gun at police who immediately riddle her body with bullets, her body writhing in a haze of visceral gunfire—an image that would be cliche if it weren’t so disturbing. But it’s Vos, skin so white it’s almost translucent, who we see wake up, gasping for breath, in a hospital gown.
Nobody worries about Vos’s clear affinity for violence, even as she unnecessarily escalates the brutality of her kills. Is this an affinity that’s been exacerbated by her line of work? Is it easier for her to take out her bloodlust on strangers on society’s margins? Or is she just more comfortable embracing cruelty when she’s inside a different body, particularly a body that is culturally viewed as inherently violent? Vos defends her choice to use a knife over a gun as more “in-character” for Holly, but whose character is she talking about? Is she talking about Holly, or herself, or Holly as perceived by Vos and her murderous white coworkers?
Holly’s death is familiar to me as an American not just because it resembles the long history of police murders of Black people but also because of her death’s relationship to capital and the workplace. Vos is not operating alone when she possesses Holly but with a team of professionals whose violence has been formalized. What they’re doing isn’t legal but the movie smartly never makes it seem like they are committing a crime. The legitimization of their work resembles extralegal exertions of power that elite classes of white people have maintained throughout history. At a certain point of class and privilege, legality is as irrelevant as ethics. It’s how religious institutions and financiers have maintained rampant and barely-disguised rings of sexual abuse and human trafficking. How lynchings as an act of violence against Black men and terror against Black communities have never disappeared, only evolved.
The main possessed body in Possessor is not Holly, but Colin Tate, played by Christopher Abbott. Abbott is not Black, though it’s easy to read racialization into his character. He’s a fatherless American drug dealer dating a client who is the posh daughter of a successful corporate businessman. He stands out in this Canada-United Kingdom co-production that features a mostly Canadian and English cast. Colin’s relationship with Ava is his tether to the outside world—she gets him his job, his apartment, and his friends—and it’s this relationship that makes him a target. Murders and future tech aside, it’s a typical corporate power grab; Ava’s brother wants their father out of the picture so he can gain control of the family’s rapidly expanding data-mining company. In exchange for the hit, Vos and the firm will be paid handsomely in cash along with, most importantly, a hefty share of the company. If it sounds convoluted, it’s because it is, but the complications just ensure that it’s a mission only Vos could take on.
Colin isn’t a great boyfriend or an upstanding citizen but he’s hardly a kingpin mastermind—rather, his life can be conveniently simplified into a violent archetype. In the narrative that Girder has created, he’s a thug who feels emasculated by his girlfriend, begins to abuse drugs, and kills the family in an emotionally stunted rage. An old dog up to old tricks. It’s a story based on notions of class and criminality that fit dominant social perceptions of a type of poor, young man.
It’s a remarkable performance from Abbott who truly seems to evoke Riseborough as Colin fades in and out of consciousness in his body. Colin has no language to describe what is happening to him—obviously the nature of Vos’s work is highly secretive—but perhaps he subconsciously knows how to fight for self-determination. With each small act of resistance to Vos’s control, Colin engages in a miniaturized version of a familiar class struggle made all the more grotesque by the literalization of how capitalism takes aim at the body.
As demonstrated with Colin, the possessed person doesn’t simply disappear under their possessor. So I keep returning to Holly’s brief appearance, wondering what the film would look like if it were about her. What is it like for Vos to occupy the body of a young Black woman? And what is it like for Holly, her subconscious still somewhere in this body that has been hijacked by some white lady she’s never met? It seems fitting that the film opens on Holly’s braids, which she then covers with a cheap, blunt wig—a keen metaphor for her possession. Holly’s mind is just under the surface of Vos’s control, her free will temporarily masked by a synthetic object.
Perhaps for Vos it was a thrill to literally control a Black body in the way that the Atlantic slave trade or Jim Crow never could. Maybe Vos liked putting on this Blackness. Maybe she took this as an opportunity to do all the things that white people on Twitter whine they’re not allowed to do: say the n-word, wear cornrows, misuse AAVE. And then she got to flee the body before she became just another Black girl killed by the police, her death forgotten and uninvestigated.
With each job, Vos seems to lose another shred of her humanity. I wonder if, as she discards parts of herself, she gains parts of the lives she briefly inhabits. What if she took some of Holly before she expired in that storm of gunfire? What could be learned from living briefly as Holly, from living briefly as me? I’m not talking about some magical life lesson taken from walking in another’s shoes but something more personal. If there’s one thing 2020 has made clear, there’s seemingly no amount of Black death and trauma that is unacceptable to white people. Besides, Vos is a serial killer. I don’t expect her to learn empathy from two days in a Black woman’s body. But maybe two days inside my mind would be enough to take some of my Blackness with me. Would Vos get my great-grandmother’s lace cookie recipe? Would she, months later, get a whiff of cocoa butter and recognize it as the oil I use on my elbows during the dry winter months?
The cruelty of Possessor is not in the assassinations. It’s hard to be scandalized by violence in 2021, even when it’s photographed as lushly as it is here. It’s in the plan. The completely architected takeover of one’s body and the prolonged loss of control. In the betrayal by someone who watched you long enough to package your life but not enough to recognize your humanity. In the forcible surrender to some white strangers who have sold your body and played their part in the centuries-old capitalist legacy of trading your kinfolk.
It’s what makes the Sunken Place so existentially frightening. In a world where we, as Black women, are still allowed so little freedom of movement and expression, the idea that we could further have our personhood stripped from us—and that nobody would notice—is horrifying. The total loss of free will is worse than any atrocity that could be rendered on-screen. Holly and Colin are already vulnerable. Alone, marginalized, dependent, poor. They are the easiest to commodify, the easiest to subsume.
Possessor is clearly a movie about power and ownership which is why it was so frustrating that this racial reading was not touched on by most of the reviews. They took the film at face value, noting the clever Amazon-esque technologies and grimly sophisticated arthouse imagery. But I had spent the summer screaming Breonna Taylor’s name at protests a few blocks from my apartment in Minneapolis. I’d seen her image become a grotesque meme, a punchline, a song lyric, an object. The commodification of her name and face made me cringe at best, made me feel hopelessly sick at worse—but perhaps, I told myself, this was a way forward. Perhaps if we all knew her name, if her face became impossible to forget, her family could get justice. It could push the needle on the cultural disdain this world has for Black women. Even if it was crass and inhumane, maybe this objectification would be enough to shock white people into recognizing the inherent brutality and white supremacy of a society that values capital above all else. But that didn’t happen. Watching Possessor, all I could think about were the generations of Black lives before mine that had been ended because of white greed.
So much of the language around Black death—particularly when white people lead the conversation—uses imagery of sacrifice and martyrdom. The belief that Black people, above all, are useful is a pernicious trope of white supremacy. It’s my white acquaintance only-kind-of-joking that I should publicly accuse her historically white company of racism and get them “cancelled.” Her unspoken assumption that I would be willing to endanger my career over a company I didn’t work for so that she could avoid any uncomfortable conversations. It’s the offices I’ve worked in that assume that I alone can, will, and want to solve systemic issues of workplace diversity—for no additional pay or compensation.
And it’s white people who presume they’re well-intentioned using the continuous cycle of Black death to build and sell an anti-racist brand, to give themselves or their white children a quick and soon-forgotten lesson in privilege, to express a sick gratitude that a stranger’s wrongful death has made the world better. All the characters in Possessor are objects, animated by larger issues of power and control to drive a central narrative. But like so many Black characters on screen, Holly has no meaning beyond her death.
If I were a cruder person, and if Possessor were a worse movie, I’d say that Holly’s presence feels like bait. It’s a moment to include in the trailer that will convince an increasingly diverse and international film-going audience that this is not your grandfather’s (or father’s, in the case of Brandon Cronenberg, son of David Cronenberg) lily-white sci-fi flick. Maybe someone on film Twitter will live-tweet that opening scene and invoke the most hallowed names of online cinematic discussion: Jordan Peele. There are plenty of movies from the last few years that have attempted to ride Peele’s specific brand of racial horror to commercial success, although none have been able to grapple with race and villainy with much sophistication (see the recent, much-mocked trailer for Karen). But because Possessor is so good, so effectively chilling, it feels all the more disappointing that Holly gets sidelined and that the trope of the Black character dying first is played completely straight.
But perhaps these reviewers didn’t contend with Holly because the film doesn’t either. In a film that’s otherwise brimming with ideas, there’s no interrogation of what it means for a white woman to take control of and kill a young Black woman for money. The film presents the murder as Vos visualizes it—a completed job, nothing more. Holly’s Blackness, her humanity, do not meaningfully register to Vos and thus not to the film, and, I suppose, to its white audience members. Instead it’s Vos and Colin’s power struggle that forms the central conflict of the film as the two move through mostly wealthy and almost exclusively white spaces. With a few exceptions of images of her blood-spattered track suit and white sneakers, Holly doesn’t appear again. Like a rock dropped into a pond, her brutal death is just another tiny tragedy that ripples briefly before being swallowed, lost forever.
Like so much science fiction, Possessor is able to imagine so much but only from within a white gaze. Though the film is able to depict Vos as monstrous, as evil, as a complicated and realized protagonist, it’s unable to depict Holly as anything more than a victim. Her death is a stepping stone for Vos’s character development and growing bloodlust. The first time I saw Possessor, I kept waiting for Holly to return in some way. For any Black person to show up. It doesn’t happen.
That science fiction is obsessed with whiteness is not a new complaint, and I’d be remiss to ignore the explosion of Black science fiction in both literature and film in the last ten year. But what I struggle with is films like Possessor, who initially seem invested in portraying racial dynamics but only when it comes to depicting extreme violence. Films where we only seem to exist to be brutalized, to add authenticity, to get killed off because the stakes need to be raised without diminishing the screen time of the white characters.
When I rewatch the film I hope that, as Colin fights for control over his body, he senses someone resisted before him. Like so many others searching for self-determination, he might find that a path has been cleared by a Black woman before him. Maybe, as his hands were unable to pull the trigger and he unsuccessfully tried to regain control of his body, he recognized that someone else had been here before him.
I find myself hoping that Holly’s resistance has made Colin’s possible. Then I wonder if I’m searching for meaning where there is none: am I making someone a martyr who never wanted to be one? Is it better if she died for no reason? I hope that one of Vos’s victims will eventually completely overpower her and whatever is left of Holly might finally get some rest. As I replay Holly’s seven minutes again and again, I try to tease out the lines of Graham’s short, startling performance. I want to trace when Holly emerges and Vos falls back. I want her to know that someone noticed when she was gone.