Blood Quantum first published by VODzilla.co
“Take heed to thyself, that thou make no treaty with the inhabitants of the land whither thou goest lest it be cause of ruin among you…. and when you choose some of their daughters for your sons, they will lead your sons to do the same.”
In opening with the text, inscribed in deep red, of this ‘ancient settler proverb’, Jeff Barnaby’s Blood Quantum sets out the stall of what will be its central thematic preoccupations: the uneasy relations between First Nations peoples and their colonial invaders, and the complications (pro)created by their subsequent miscegeny. Even the film’s title derives from a phrase used in US law to denote the proportion of one’s native ancestry, used as a criterion for determining indigenous identity and title. Set, like Barnaby’s feature debut Rhymes for Young Ghouls (2013), on and around the Red Crow Mi’kmaq reservation, the film opens in 1981, one year before the Treaty of 1752 (between the governor of Nova Scotia and the Mi’kmaq people of Shubencadie) would first be enshrined in Section 35 of Canada’s Constitution Act, paving the way for the conciliatory Treaty’s recognition by the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia in 1985, more than two centuries after it was first signed.
This never takes place in Blood Quantum, unfolding as it does in an alternative history where a zombie epidemic quickly brings an apocalyptic end to the structures and establishments of society. The film’s first act shows the day on which the outbreak asserts itself, charting the rapid breakdown of a community – and then the rest of the film, set six months later, follows a band of survivors on the reservation as they face enemies from both without and within. Yet what makes this film stand out from the overcrowded zombie market is a killer premise. For here, the Mi’kmaq people are alone immune to infection, reversing a centuries-long power relation and leading now weaker, more vulnerable white ‘townies’ and ‘Opies’ to seek sanctuary and protection from the very people they once oppressed, in the very place they once avoided.
The notion of a virus that discriminates by race and resets an imbalance comes with a great deal of incendiary allegorical heft – and Barnaby goes out of his way to complicate it. Even before the infection sets in to alter the world order, Blood Quantum portrays a broken family whose dysfunction reflects the ruptures in their community. Local sheriff Traylor (Michael Greyeyes) is divorced from his wife, hospital worker Joss (Elle-Máijá Tailfeathers), while their teenaged son Joseph (Forrest Goodluck) is drifting into the drunken, delinquent ways of his older half brother ‘Lysol’ (Kiowa Gordon). Joss wonders aloud if this is because she and Traylor are “just shitty parents”, while Traylor sees the behaviour of both his sons as the legacy of his own poisoned bloodline. How ironic, then, that it is precisely this bloodline which should prove their salvation, as the source of their immunity. Meanwhile, the hopes for the continuation of this family tree are rooted in the survival of Joseph’s girlfriend Charlie (Olivia Scriven), who is pregnant with his child – and white. There is a lot to unpack here, and the film constantly refuses to make things simple. Even the emasculated villain of the piece is, as the other characters repeatedly point out, often ‘right’ in what he says (if not in what he does).
Barnaby knows that we are already overfamiliar with the tropes of the zombie movie, and so plays them out with a ruthless, gory economy (executed by rifle, axe, chainsaw and samurai sword), and never lets the story get bogged down in unnecessary, dull exposition. The film is far more interested in the politics of dispossession and discrimination, and once the reservation has become a guarded compound and last bastion of fragile civilsation, we see Traylor, his father Moon (Gary Farmer) and their friends Bumper (Brandon Oakes) and Shooker (William Belleau) embracing the warrior status that is their birthright, while half brothers Joseph and Lysol engage in an increasingly violent dialectic of reconciliation and murderous revolution. This is Do The Right Thing (1989) on the res, with more and bloodier kills – even as the image of white people bringing deadly disease to Native American encampments comes with its own uncomfortable historical resonances (“This goes back so much further”, as Lysol says of their predicament, and of his own Final Solution). Blood Quantum is confronting and provocative. It is also tightly written (even a character’s casual sexual anecdote echoes with the film’s broader motifs) and tensely realised, while packaging its complex aboriginal issues in the perennially appealing wrapper of genre.
Summary: Jeff Barnaby uses genre-bound zombie tropes to show an indigenous community that has always been under siege.
© Anton Bitel