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This is the link to a clip from Abel Ferrara’s Body Snatchers (1993), also embedded above, in which Forest Whitaker’s Major Collins experiences a total breakdown amidst an alien invasion. Additional details about the scene are included in the analysis that follows.

Army doctor Major Collins (Forest Whitaker) has had only one previous scene with Steve Malone (Terry Kinney), an employee of the Environmental Protection Agency sent to inspect an Alabama military base. Collins earlier expressed concern that environmental contaminants might be the cause of the many cases he has been seeing in the infirmary of people afraid to sleep, afraid that their loved ones have been replaced by impostors, seemingly deep in the grips of psychosis. The titular body snatching aliens have since launched a full-on assault of the base, and Collins is losing it. Desperately trying to reach an outside line, Collins agonizes over the fact that the operator somehow already knows his name. Guzzling coffee and amphetamines, and with what appears to be a hall of fame headache, Collins alternates between childlike delirium and desperate anger throughout the scene.

These emotions and reactions are all quite familiar to me. My first day at CAMH, I was desperate to secure any kind of legal counsel, convinced that there was a conspiracy being launched against me. I spent a great deal of time dialing the many listed numbers by the ward phone, getting in touch with no one of any consequence. It began to sink in for me that my options were well and truly limited, and that my previous actions (running away from my family, parked at a shopping mall, convinced they were trying to murder me) were going to dictate my immediate future. I had no understanding of psychosis at the time, and could not fathom that the things I had seen and heard might all be in my head. My delusions seemed absolutely real to me at the time, and like Collins I was increasingly convinced that my end, if not the whole world’s, was nigh.

Malone’s function within the scene is to try to convince Collins to come with him, to escape, but Collins knows better. He waits for the pod versions of General Platt (R. Lee Ermey) and company to arrive, opting to “give ‘em hell” without Malone, committing suicide rather than face what seem to be unbeatable odds.

This is certainly a decision I can relate to. At numerous points throughout my psychotic episode, suicide seemed like the only way out of an impossible situation. It took me longer than I would like to admit before I was willing to take medication long enough for it to work, and longer still before I felt like a real person again. Add in the racial dimension, which this scene with the black Major Collins brings out quite nicely, and I do not think I would have survived.

During my psychosis, it felt like everyone was watching me all the time, as if I were under constant surveillance I could not always see. I can only imagine what that might be like if you have always been, in a negative sense, the centre of certain people’s attention, a problem many people of colour struggle with every day. Platt speaks in this scene of establishing a single race, and the mix of white and black faces behind him, fixed in equally blank expressions, suggests a false, artificial unity Collins is unwilling to accept.

Placing to one side for the moment the metaphorical heft of the body snatcher concept, and the many, many meanings it could possibly have, let us look at the scene strictly as that of a man in the grips of mental illness. Collins is strung out on amphetamines, coffee, and who knows what else, not to mention the multiple firearms in his possession. Malone, a friendly face, tries to talk him down, without success. The authorities arrive, and through indirect intimidation leave Collins little choice (at least in his severely distressed state) but to shoot himself. Forget for a moment that the needle is a means of sedating Collins so he can be replaced by an alien pod; the menacing tone of the scene and Ermey’s eerily calm performance stealthily underscore the difficulties a black man in particular is apt to experience when in crisis.

We have been confronted all too often recently with these kinds of situations, in Toronto as elsewhere, and despite the science fiction trappings of the film it is the continued relevance of scenes like this to our contemporary reality that speaks most strongly to me here. The very real specter of racial erasure is everywhere to be seen throughout the history of the world, from Canada’s residential schools to the outright genocides of certain groups to the kind of institutional discrimination that plagues anyone not born white, male, and straight in the lottery of life. Abel Ferrara has not always been seen to be an obviously political filmmaker, but I think that scenes like this one demonstrate his dexterity when it comes to exposing the hypocrisies of the American experience. Collins takes what to him is the most principled stand he can, and the tragedy of the scene, for me, is that I can see why it would appear to him the best option.

I do not wish to draw too direct a line between the kinds of persecution one feels while psychotic with that of racialized minorities in the West, but the shared sense of hopelessness is an important commonality. From an intersectional perspective, I could see why systemic discriminations large and small almost certainly aggravate psychosis, and my sympathies go out to those who have any kind of illness compounded or caused outright by that kind of hardship. I do not pretend to speak for anyone other than myself, but I also could not pretend to ignore the racial dimensions of this scene, or indeed the whole movie. For it is another black soldier that informs protagonist Marti Malone (Gabrielle Anwar) at the film’s start of what is to come; resistance may be futile within the world of the film, Ferrara denies us any certainty on this point, but that does not prevent the director and his collaborators from underlining some of the real-world horrors we might actually be able to do something about.

References

Carniecouto. (2012, September 6). Body snatchers – The individual is important scene. Retrieved April 10, 2017, from Dailymotion: http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xtd32o_body-snatchers-the-individual-is-important-scene_shortfilms

Solo, R. (Producer), & Ferrara, A. (Director). (1993). Body snatchers [Motion picture]. United States: Warner Bros.

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