Let’s begin with a simple exercise.
Name three films centering on Indigenous characters. Better yet, name three genre films centering on indigenous characters. Now look at your list, (which likely includes the Disney musical Pocahontas), and identify how many of those films had creative teams with predominantly Indigenous people in the rosters. It’s not easy to do, is it?
It’s rare, even in modern times that seem to embrace cultural representation in film, to see movies made from the perspective of Indigenous people, and even less so are those portrayals coming from Native American creative teams. Even worse are the portrayals of Native Americans throughout the history of film, ranging as far back as the cowboy craze of the 1930’s and onward. Poorly written “mystic healers” and “medicine men” permeate the public understanding of Indigenous people even to this day.
Blood Quantum is an indie production released in 2019 from writer-director Jeff Barnaby, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe in Quebec, Canada. Praised for its inventive narrative take on the zombie genre, the film became an instantaneous cult classic.
The first act of the film follows a traditional zombie movie structure – our lead characters are going about their day when strange occurrences instantly recognizeable to the audience begin. A fisherman notices that his catch is flopping around long after being gutted and cleaned. A dog that had been put down comes back to life. An imprisoned man becomes erratic and violent. The events all culminate in a night of terror, as the lead character Traylor (Michael Greyeye) responds to a domestic abuse call, only to find the man who called being violently attacked by his sick, aggressive girlfriend.
Nothing thus far has caught the attention of genre fans, and to this point, the only notable difference between Blood Quantum and standard zombie fare is the setting, taking place on the Red Crow tribe’s reservation in Quebec, Canada. However, the film then jumps forward six months and takes a decisive narrative turn. We rejoin our cast of characters who now adorn Mad Max-esque leather clothing, in true post-apocolypic fashion. The film’s twist is that its Indigenous characters are impervious to the zombie virus, whereas white characters are susceptible to becoming infected.
This ethnic line-in-the-sand rule is exacerbated by the fact that one of the main characters has a white girlfriend who is pregnant with their child. As all of the characters are either full indigenous or full white, the fate of their unborn child is yet to be determined. Will the 50% blood from the father be enough to keep the child immune from the “zed” disease? The blood quantum laws that the film is named after are a system used in the United States and Canada to evaluate an individual’s indigeneity. They determine whether or not an individual can claim citizenship under certain tribes. For example, someone whose parents are both indigenous would have a blood quantum of 2/2, or 100%.
Furthermore, being immune to catching the disease doesn’t make the ravenous undead any less dangerous, and the survivors are forced to be selective in who they take in, as a single infected zombie could easily overpower many within the stronghold.
By the late 2010’s, the landscape for zombie movies had become complacent, with notable entries like Train to Busan exhibiting few new additions to the genre, choosing to instead focus on micro human drama or bombastic special effects. The zombie genre is well trod in Western cinema, with nearly six decades separating Night of the Living Dead and Blood Quantum. It’s easy for passive audience members to comprehend the structure of these films – undead humans roam the earth and a collective of protagonists are left to their own devices to survive the predicament. Where the genre excels is explorations of greater societal themes by means of the undead. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead standing as an allegory for American consumerism by placing its characters in a mall. Boris Sagal’s The Omega Man, based on the Richard Matheson novel posits that mankind is the true monster standing in the way of a greater evolution’s development.
The consistent throughline of the genre is to explore a larger societal phenomenon by deconstructing said society. Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum features all of the standard zombie fare that audiences have come to expect – brain-hungry undead, solid practical effects, and tense fight sequences. Where the film truly exceeds is it’s metaphorical examination of colonization and the biological impact that settlers had on the indigenous people of North America.
The irony immediately apparent in the narrative is that the Indigenous people of Canada are somehow impervious to infection that its white citizens are succeptible to. Mirroring centuries old events, the allegory of European settlers spreading diseases that killed hundreds of thousands of Native Americans is bleak, yet honest ground to tread. Actor Michael Greyeyes who plays Traylor in the film stated in an interview, “[our ancestors] didn’t create borders, they didn’t create walls, and in doing so, we can’t fault them for their humanity.” The same humanity that exposed his ancestors to biological genocide is a focal point of the film – namely, whether or not the Red Crow tribe is responsible for taking in and caring for infected and helpless white Canadians that come to them looking for refuge.
It’s important to reiterate that these hyper-focused questions are presented in a film that begins with an entire act of by-the-book zombie cliches. It’s these questions that stick with audiences long after credits roll that elevate the film far beyond its low-budget roots into something transcendent.
In the wake of Hollywood accepting diversity as mainstream, there are still significant gaps in representation where Indigenous filmmakers consistently find themselves overlooked. Blood Quantum supposes on a metatextual level that to tell authentic Indigenous stories is to reckon with the legacy of the relationship between settlers and those they displace; and, in so doing, places an uncomfortable spotlight on the filmmaking establishment.
Films like Crazy Rich Asians and Coco, often championed for their strong representation, are able to tell authentic stories of their respective Asian and Latinx communities in a relative vacuum; never paying mention to the colonized people of Singapore and Mexico where the films are set. Indigenous filmmakers are not afforded such luxuries, and by the very nature of their existence challenge the filmmaking establishment, which has been allowed to thrive for decades on stolen land. Blood Quantum joins the ranks of the very best zombie films alongside the ranks of George A. Romero, Stuart Gordon, and Danny Boyle, by not only offering an enthralling genre film, but a lively critique of modern society; pushing audiences to examine their own complacency within these institutions.