Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Iron Fisted Mutha: Barret Wallace

   Final Fantasy VII was the first title to be released in the United States by the same name as it was in Japan since the first Final Fantasy.  Final Fantasy II in the US was IV and III in the US was VI.  With such a sudden jump from III to VII, there is a recognizable rift between American and Japanese audiences.  To further cement this, Final Fantasy VII was the first title to be released outside of a Nintendo console for the then new Sony Playstation.  While Nintendo had a history in America, Sony's contributions to American entertainment before the Playstation can pretty much be summed up with the Walkman, transistor radios, and maybe a television or vcr or something else 90s.  The debut of the Playstation would have to appeal to a Western market already dominated by Sega and Nintendo.  To make the game more identifiable among western audiences, Final Fantasy VII would be the first game to introduce more western characters.  And by western characters, I mean by appealing to a more ethnically diverse cast as seen in Western media.  The product of this is Barret.

Quite like Cloud's hair and giant sword, Barret is also quite iconic.

At first glance, it's not terribly difficult to pass Barret off as a horribly stereotypical token black character.  He's burly, he's as foul mouthed as a T for Teen rating will allow until Cid shows up and gives him a run for his money (a lot of what he says is censored with asterisks in the PC version, but context clues allow you to quickly fill in the blanks), he's slightly ill tempered, specifically when more feminine qualities are brought up or when somebody (like Cloud) is being difficult, and he has trouble figuring out how some forms of modern technology work.  His role in the story is that of both herald of the quest and helper to the hero.

By definition, a token character is one that is included in a story so as to appeal to a minority that otherwise wouldn't appear or have much say in a certain world or time period.  They tend to be either completely defined by their race (as commonly seen in Michael Bay action movies) or to be completely ignored for their race (as commonly seen in television ads for fast food).  It should be recognized that many movies break this mold and have very interesting and very remarkable black characters and that Western entertainment isn't always defined by this standard it is associated with.
Strictly speaking the role of Ben in the script only
required a man in his twenties regardless of race
but it worked out really well that Duane Jones
got the part in an era of much needed black heroes.  

For example, Ben from George Romero's Night of the Living Dead is the hero of a story who brought a new face to a largely white dominated world of heroes by way of his determination against impossible odds and resourcefulness in keeping those around him alive.  He doesn't pull punches, and he asserts his own humanity by trying to keep an insane world sane.  Ben resulted in the video game company Telltale Games to make their own hero Lee Everett in the video game adaptation of the series The Walking Dead.  Again, Lee is the hero, but this time with a more troubled background as he tries to be a good man despite his crimes for the sake of a little girl named Clementine in an all around evil and cruel world.  A third example is Idris Elba as Stacker Pentecost in Pacific Rim where he leads the resistance against the giant monsters when all other nations have lost faith in his efforts. Pentecost takes care of Mako Mori quite like Lee Everett takes care of Clementine after a crazy world has taken these two girl's parents.  These are three black heroes in stories that don't inherently have to do with race, but are otherwise very well developed and celebrated.  There are a handful of others like these two, but generally the inclusion of black characters in stories is simpler in nature.

In the Mel Gibson movie The Patriot directed by Roland Emmerich, a black character is included among the revolutionaries who talks with Heath Ledger about the future and equality and respect for all men.  While this is a nice gesture (a token of appreciation if you will) it doesn't change the fact that historically the majority of slaves in the Thirteen Colonies who took a side sided with the British since they gave a more firm offering of emancipation for service.  Also, the black character is freed for his service at the beginning of the Battle of Cowpens and suddenly all of his previously racist comrades respect him as an individual.  It is a nice gesture, but anyone who knows the rest of American history knows that it's almost entirely unfounded.

In the film adaptation of Les Miserables starring Liam Neeson as Jean Valjean, Marius' friend who is leading the revolution against the French monarchy is a black character (which has much stronger grounds for accuracy than in the case of The Patriot since there were many freed people of color like Alexander Dumas who were active in political life and society as a whole), but his ethnicity really isn't emphasized.  The thing about Marius' friend is that his role in the plot of the movie (not necessarily in the novel and certainly not in the musical although he's generally not black in either of these places) is very much peripheral.

Here Marius takes the Center of the frame
Barret Wallace in contrast doesn't really fit into either of these molds of token characters.  He really shouldn't fall into the first mold of being token because the world of Final Fantasy VII is a world entirely separate from our own with a different history and different prejudices (in this world, prejudice falls more heavily on the Asian-like Wutai, but we may or may not talk about that later) As for the second model, while he is basically a supporting character with many others more important than him later on and practically no emphasis on his race, he has a lot to offer to the plot as well as a very detailed backstory of his own. In this manner, he is a lot more like Stacker Pentecost and Lee Everett (even right down to the detail of an adopted daughter).

SPOILERSssss, but not very big ones so you won't spoil the overall plot if you continue.

To understand Barret, one must first understand his backstory.  Barret was a well respected individual in the coal mining town of Corel.  In those days before the rise of the Shinra Power Company, coal was a viable power source, but quite like it is in our world, it isn't very clean and mining it takes its toll on the health of coal miners.  His wife, Myrna, is one such person probably afflicted with black lung.  His best friend, Dyne, also lived in this town with a wife Eleanor and daughter Marlene.  One day a representative of the Shinra Power Company arrived offering to build a Mako Reactor in the town to improve the people of Corel's way of life.  Mako, a new power source that wasn't fully explained at the time, was a much cleaner and much more efficient alternative to coal, so Barret and the rest of the town immediately jumped on board.  Dyne had his doubts, but Barret reassured him it would be alright.

For a while, the Mako reactor proved to be a very profitable power source that made Corel grow wealthy.  Barret and Dyne became representatives of the town to the company and it is while they were in the capital city of Midgar that the reactor exploded.  The higher ups at Shinra assumed the explosion was the result of terrorist activity from the townspeople, so in response they sent in a deathsquad to exterminate the populace.

Barret and Dyne came home to witness the destruction of their town and when the death squad saw them, they started shooting at the two as they fled.  Barret went unscathed for the time, but Dyne slipped while he was running and almost fell of a cliff.  Barret managed to grab Dyne before he could fall, but then the business woman for the Company ordered her soldiers to shoot the two.  The resulting barrage of machine gun fire tore apart Barret and Dyne's arms causing Dyne to fall to his apparent death.

Barret lost his wife, his best friend, his best friend's wife, and his home that day, but managed to rescue Dyne's daughter Marlene.  To honor his friend, Barret adopted Marlene as his own, becoming one of the greatest single parents in video game history.
Marlene pretending to be Barret.  

Since the survivors of Corel blamed Barret for destroying their lives, Barret left in search of answers for his life as it all fell apart around him.  It was in this time that he arrived in Cosmo Canyon and learned about the true nature of Mako energy.  He discovers that Mako is the spirits of all souls passing again and again in different forms between life and death.  In terms of The Lion King, it's the Circle of Life.  The Mako reactors basically serve to extract and condense life itself into a nonrenewable resource that will greatly expedite the death of the planet.  To ensure a brighter future for his daughter, Barret swears he will end Shinra, has his injured arm amputated and replaced with a machine gun, and founds a group of freedom fighters for the planet Gaia called AVALANCHE.

SORTA SPOILERS END HERE FOR NOW, but if you didn't read that stuff above, you still probably should.  I'm just being courteous, because I respect your ability to make your own decisions and I want to streamline this as much as I possibly can.
He was later redesigned to have corn rows so as to look less like Mr. T.
So you see, Barret's anger has a legitimate basis.  He lost basically everything but instead of losing control about that and swearing vengeance, he turns all of his efforts toward the future.  His bold demeanor and the heart he wears on his nonexistent sleeve makes him the ethos and pathos of all the heroes.  His past is dark and full of loss just like pretty much everyone else in this story, but he isn't a murderer, he only hopes to disable the reactors long enough to raise awareness of their harmful effect on the planet.  For this reason, Barret is the original leader of the group, but Barret soon learns that leadership requires great loss in order for anything to happen.

Picking up on the story again here, so SPOilller, you know what, i'll just save the legitimate spoiler bar for the actually really big spoilers.  It's a big and excellent story, so I'm not going to diddle on such trivial exclusions.

Barret's leadership of AVALANCHE starts off pretty well.  Based out of a bar in the slums of Midgar run by Tifa, Barret leads his three original members Jessie, Biggs, and Wedge (Biggs and Wedge are part of a running gag throughout the series in that they are named after Luke Skywalker's two wingmen at the Battle of Yavin in Star Wars) in an effort to disable the reactors surrounding the city.  The city of Midgar is surrounded by seven different reactors, and a large amount of the world's population, so it's as good a place as any for a group of rebels.  However, in response to the trouble caused by AVALANCHE, the President of Shinra decides the best course of action in eradicating the rebels is to blow up a support column that holds part of the city above the slums, crushing all of the people in this part of the city, and then blaming it on AVALANCHE.

This occurrence results in Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie getting killed, but Aeris whom Cloud had met earlier manages to rescue Marlene.  After an attack on the Shinra headquarters to mixed results, Barret follows Cloud on his quest to find Sephiroth (who will also be getting a post all to himself, so just wait for that) since staying in Midgar will only mean more danger for Marlene.  Marlene stays at Aeris' mother's house since Aeris travels with Cloud and Barret.

Barret's troubles reach their pinnacle when Cloud and the gang return to Corel, which remains an encampment of squatters despite an amusement park being moved in right next door.  Everybody in Corel hates Barret just as much then as they did after the attack on the town, and this proves to be very upsetting for him.  While the group splits up at the amusement park, a news report comes up regarding a man with a gun for a hand going on a wild rampage and killing Shinra military personnel.  Since everybody assumes it is Barret, and since Cloud and the group are associates of Barret, they are all imprisoned in an internment camp at the base of the amusement park.  This is where they meet Dyne, who has apparently survived and also has a machine gun for an arm.

It turns out Dyne killed all those people and is on a quest to kill everybody and everything to fill the void in his life.  When Barret tells Dyne that Marlene is still alive, Dyne suggests interest in killing her too and then himself so that they can all be together again in death.  Barret immediately recognizes this to be crazy talk and apprehends his once friend, but Dyne turns his gun against himself and commits suicide instead of facing the future.  It is at this point Barret realizes he isn't cut out to lead since everything generally gets worse before they get better.

So anyway, this adoptive father who is also a widower who is also a former business man who is also an ecoterrorist who is also a bit of a mentor is far from a simple character inserted to nod to a certain minority found in western audiences.  But the question still remains as to why he's black (he's really the only one in pretty much the entire world) when virtually everyone else in the story is either Caucasian or Asian in appearance (of course these terms aren't exactly accurate given Asia and the Caucasus aren't geographic locations in the world of Gaia).  Well, art reflects reality especially when the art is fantasy, and really the purpose of it all is to suggest that a global effort to save the world really isn't in the hands of one people group alone.  In the same vein as 90s cartoons (this came out in 97) like Captain Planet or the Magic Schoolbus or any other one for that matter, everybody has a part to play in the betterment of mankind.  No one person is locked into any stereotype as all the characters have many similarities, but not everybody is the exact same and everyone has something they can do for the future.

If Barret represents anything more than looking like Mr. T with a gun for a fist, it's that mistakes aren't the measure of a person and that being a part of a rough journey even if he didn't have what it took to bear all of the responsibilities for the entirety of the quest ultimately results in some reward.  Despite everything he lost, it all stayed with him as part of the planet, and though he cannot give Marlene her parents back, he can at least give her the planet in which they live on as a part of the whole of the universe.  In truth, I'd say that's what Barret gives all of us in his story.

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