Young, Gifted & Black: Agency And More In The Girl With All The Gifts

I finally got to catch The Girl With All The Gifts a couple weeks ago. And I’ve been meaning to sit down and scribble about it for a few reasons, all of which I’ll get into. Before that though, note that spoiler dap is byke. So if you haven’t seen the movie, you can’t blame me here.

Based on a book of the same name, The Girl with All The Gifts is a sci-fi/horror movie set in some near future where a fungal infection has assumedly murked most of the human population. The infected are called Hungries and take on the fast zombie characteristics we’ve seen in iconic horror movies like 28 Days Later, less iconic zombie flicks like World War Z and epic gaming franchises like The Last of Us. While horror buff Simon Pegg doesn’t appreciate fast zombies, I’m personally with the movement, pun intended. All that aside: this movie focuses on Melanie (Sennia Nanua), a young girl who’s one of many children being observed by a military outfit in a prison-esque environment. Her group is the “second generation” — children who have become symbiotically linked with the fungus. It grants them certain abilities without being uncontrollable Hungries….until they smell non-infected humans.

In the midst of this draconian research for a cure, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) and a group of survivors are soon overrun and must escape with Melanie in tow. The film then follows them through their attempt to return to Beacon, the last bastion of safety for non-infected humans. Granted, they never make it. In fact, the body counts racks up pretty quickly after Act 2. With auxiliary characters dying all willy nilly, it’s easy to get to the creamy, chewy nougat of the narrative: agency and difference.

A deep space shot from the 2017 horror sci-fi film, The Girl With All The Gifts. Photo courtesy of Warner Bros.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Before we hop into that though: The Girl With All The Gifts is a solid zombie movie. It maintains a slew of jump scares and some “you’re being really dumb” sacrifices that all horror movies require of their characters. It’s a slow burn movie that uses action to move the story instead of throwing spectacle at your feet. It’s tactful and speaks to the movie’s core as a horrific sci-fi drama. I say this because it’s the relationships Melanie has with herself, the other Hungries and her captors that make The Girl With All The Gifts specifically interesting. Yes, there are zombies. But they function more as a background narrative element. Like bad weather or an Act of God, they are an existential threat in the deepest meaning of the phrase, and not necessarily a bit-by-bit danger that makes you feel incredibly fearful for each character’s life. So, if you take that at face value, it’s a good flick.

Now, about agency and difference.

Near the end of TGWATG  it’s discovered that the infected eventually die en masse, creating a large organic tower of fungal pods. Dr. Caldwell intimates that this is the sexual reproduction stage, wherein a simple environmental event – flooding, wildfire, etc – could take the fungus airborne, infecting everyone. These facts are ominous at the time, but don’t become fully important till later on during the final stretch of the movie.

In this bit, Caldwell is trying to convince Melanie to sacrifice herself – by using Melanie’s spine and brain, Caldwell can create a vaccine – so that Melanie’s favorite teacher, Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton), and other humans, may live. At the thought of killing herself to save what little is left of humanity, Melanie simply asks “Why should we die, so that you may live?” What follows is a strange and complex set of events. Instead of submitting to Caldwell’s view for the future, Melanie goes off to ignite the fungal structure while sealing her human friends in a mobile lab. In doing this, she dooms anyone who isn’t second generation to infection, ushering in a new world. The movie closes with Melanie rounding up feral second generation children, and some escapees from the original compound, to be taught by Justineau.

Now, this is weird in its own right. Generally we expect the hero to make the ultimate sacrifice for the good of the human race in most of our post-apocalyptic movies. It’s a trope unto itself, especially in American cinema: the hero is never unlike Jesus, martyring themselves for the betterment of their homies, and the narrative  In Melanie’s choices though we have this divergence and a larger question: what is the human race if it’s already decimated? This question has been exhaustively explored in shows like The Walking Dead, whose last 3-4 seasons have seriously explored the boundaries of what “humanity” can even be when the inevitable, be it death or zombification, is, well, inevitable. Every season, Rick & co. try their best to survive, to make community. And every season, their attempts are thwarted. And yet, they persevere. Even in light of this past season, wherein beloved characters are horribly slaughtered and Rick is brought to his knees (again.) For lifelong watchers like myself, you end up wondering: what the fuck is the point?

Pictured: Sennia Nanua as Melanie and Glenn Close as Dr. Caroline Caldwell in the 2017 sci-fi horror film, The Girl With All The Gifts. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In The Girl With All The Gifts, this question is answered: maybe there is no point for humanity as we know it, so stop it, b. On paper, it makes sense: by wiping out non-symbiotic humans, no one is in danger any more. The only downside is the loss of human life. But, what is human life if the fundamental scale by which it’s measured has changed? And, who gets to decide what that scale is? In Melanie choosing herself, we have a riveting moment of agency that is shaded by both age and race. Melanie chooses, and her choice is explicitly against Humanity 1.0 She is the one who knocks and she’s knocking doors down. For some, it can be off-putting, as we’re conditioned to be invested in these sacrificial heroes.

But I find it fascinating: a child – a black child – refuses to kill herself for a future that holds no water for herself or her kind. On the topic of age, the complexity of this decision is evident across the movie: being raised in captivity, Melanie only knows that she loves Justineau and initially doesn’t understand why she’s hated. As she is exposed to the outside world, and is fed more information about the truth of the apocalypse by Dr. Caldwell, she’s able to parse the complexity of her situation. In ultimately becoming one with her differentness, she is able to see how and why she’s vilified, even when the non-symbiotic humans depend on her for survival.

In the book, Melanie is 10 years old. By the looks of the movie, Melanie is moreso 10-12. But in either case, she’s dealing with incredibly hard moral and survival decisions at a criminally young age. In this, I feel the movie does a great job of showing both her intelligence and vulnerability. For instance, in one scene, she must scout a way out of a building surrounded by Hungries. But when tasked to do so, she asks that she can wear her new clothes scavenged from abandoned houses. It’s a small moment, but when you realize she’s been wearing an orange prison jumpsuit up to this point, your heart melts a bit as you watch her play with velcro straps on her shoes. In this, we’re able to see just how young she is and just how much innocence has been lost to a world ravaged.

As an extraordinary child in a world of adults, Melanie is in a special position because she compensates with her abilities and her youthful clarity. Thus, making a world-ending (or creating) decision may be tough for the other characters – and the audience. But given her intelligence, the limited experience she’s had as a person, and the ways in which she’s been treated, it’s nothing but a simple logic problem for her. And it creates a profound space for us: children are just now getting more agency in real life, let alone in our cinematic fantasies on-screen. This is especially true when you consider that Melanie isn’t demonized for her agency either.

From Children of The Corn to The Omen to even Akira, preternaturally intelligent or empowered children who hold serious agency are often a source of horror, not empathy. It’s a trend that’s accepted because, while we may not be kickin’ it with the Victorians, children are still expected to be seen and not heard; told and not the tellers. By presenting an empathic pathway to a child empowered with a particular kind of agency, The Girl With All The Gifts complicates this cinematic history and offers something new. For that alone, this movie deserves store credit and a couple chicken wings. For me personally, this also isn’t the only reason why TGWATG is a solid watch. Let’s talk race.

A close up shot of Sennia Nanua as Melanie in the 2017 sci-fi horror film, The Girl With All The Gifts. Image courtesy of Warner Bros.
Courtesy of Warner Bros.

In a jump to some extratextual stuff, the choice to let these silly humans die, is also complicated by race a bit. I mentioned earlier that in the movie, Melanie is a black girl. This is a 180 from the book, wherein she is a very fair-skinned, blonde child. And while I’m sure I’d still be writing about this moment if she was a little white girl, Melanie’s defiance feels so much more impactful because she’s black. In choosing a world that she can mold, and defying the needs of these white people around her, Melanie is anarchist and radical. Often times, especially in horror, we see black bodies sacrificed in favor of the narrative. While The Girl With All The Gifts is no exception – two black characters die at the hand of the infected, one by proxy, the other because of his own foolishness – Melanie’s actions still speak volumes. If we are to get super eggheady: Melanie’s actions as The Other here ultimately otherizes Normality. By refusing the framework that’s been doled to her, she realizes her power and re-calibrates the power dynamics at hand.

To parallel this kind of logic with real life, it’s kind of delicious. From the Hamilton mixtape to the hidden histories of contemporary civil rights movements to general sense, it’s clear that people of color, immigrants, queer folks and other often demonized populations  know we should get more credit for the profits and progress of America. And yet, we’re often treated as The Other, the darkness at the borders of Normality, the danger. But what if we reject that notion? What happens when we revel in our accomplishments and offer concrete ultimatums instead of asking for arbitrary equalities under laws and systems that are made to hinder us anyway?

If those who have benefitted from oppression can’t let go of the Good Ol’ Times™, why should we march into the future with them holding us – as a people and a nation – back? In a globalized world that’s being equally held hostage by capitalism and a reality tv star with a colossal ego, it’s clear that the old ways – and the people who are attached to them – aren’t work. If you let Jay Z tell it, problematic or not, it’s time to build a legacy that’s invested in our own. If you ask Oprah, it’s been time to let the grim reaper do his thug thizzle. I don’t have any particular answers. But I do think it’s time to preserve and create some new stories, so we’re not caught in some antiquated world where we’re still treated like something less than human, when, like Melanie, it’s often been proven we’re that and so much more.

these boots mine.Dap owns Timberland boots and is committed to loving black women, eating good food and diversifying media as he sees fit and while he can. He can be found yelling into the abyss and being snarky on the following:  IG | Twitter