You are here

Morphing Out of Identity Politics: Black or White and Terminator 2

While ideas of metamorphosing bodies are as old and fertile as storytelling traditions, our capacity to morph matter visually, 'in real time,' captivates audiences because it appeals to our belief in the idea of transformational identity.
Ron Alcalay

Issue #19, March 1995

Shamans told of shape-shifting into a wolf to go hunting at night; Franz Kafka wrote about a man's metamorphosis into the body of a bug; and today on television an automobile morphs into the Exxon tiger in front of our eyes. While ideas of metamorphosing bodies are as old and fertile as storytelling traditions, our capacity to morph matter visually, 'in real time,' captivates audiences because it appeals to our belief in the idea of transformational identity. Morphing combines cinema and computing to create lifelike images which confront the viewer with spectacles of unstable identities, and plays upon assumptions of fixed, bounded, or essential identities. Entrenched differences in race, sex, age, etc., give way to a continuum of identities that creates images of those who may identify with more than a narrow group. Morphing makes these alternative sites of identification visible and hence available, as witnessed by a recent Newsweek cover displaying the many faces of a new America. Biracial and multi-racial people, for example, may locate themselves in a universe of images that morph between identities, rather than cutting or dissolving — methods of change that still point to an authenticity residing within the identity-binding confines of the sub-group or frame.

Through the narratives that deploy it, the politically neutral technology of morphing could be said to already participate in the ideological debates about identity politics. While morphing can emphasize what Ralph Ellison, speaking of the United States, once called 'the unity in diversity,' the program can also be scripted to re-emphasize an essential identity or self, different and bounded, which may allow one to perform other identities for various reasons, but will never itself change. Some narratives will wield the technology as a way of enacting transformation; others cast characters that change shape only temporarily. Two landmark products in the field of morphing, Michael Jackson's 1992 music video Black or White and James Cameron's 1992 feature film Terminator 2: Judgment Day employ morphing in ways that both undermine and reinscribe an essentialized identity politics. These productions suggest that a performative model of identity, while liberatory in some cases, may provide cover for the most destructive of essential identities. Used more progressively, morphing displays difference, but also reminds us of similarities we too easily overlook. Or as the man who served me paella put it, 'It helps you get into the other guy's shoes.'

What is Morphing and What Can it Do to You?

First developed in 1988 for the film Willow, which shows animals changing into other animals, morphing is an evolving technology involving computer animation. Basically, the programmers place grids over two dissimilar objects, connect the intersections of the grids, and stretch or compress the sections, in order to create a continuum of intermediary forms and colors. Its all very artistic, and currently very expensive. Another way to understand morphing is to compare it to more traditional animation, which has been achieving similar effects for years, albeit without the degree of indexical, photographic realism that Andre Bazin so admired in film. Animation achieves its miraculous transformations by drawing or sculpting new and slightly different permutations of an object, varying physical characteristics slightly in each cel or frame, until the object embodies the new form. When live-action cinema first set out to convey these transformations, it did so inventively, but often clumsily. Georges Melies mastered magical editing, matte shots and dissolves, but his followers sometimes resorted to cruder methods of marking the transformations in which they wished us to believe. Explosions with smoke, dense fog, and timely ellipses provided the screens behind which the make-up artists labored or actors disappeared. With morphing, we've left behind the need for visual stunts, or cinematic slights-of-hand. The transformation happens smoothly before our eyes, affecting us viscerally with the power of photography and the fancy of animation.

Some argue that this technology reduces identity to a spectacle, a flat image to be consumed. To these critics I say, 'Yes, and because this is how we imbibe our prejudices about identity most unconsciously, this is where morphing can work most effectively to challenge those beliefs.' Soon morphing won't be prohibitively expensive for an average computer user. Morphing programs will enable users to choose the images we wish to morph between, selecting say, a man and a tree; and these experiences of seamless transformation will also dissolve the psychological boundaries that keep us from acknowledging the similarities we share with those subjects and objects — if only, in the case of the tree, a rootedness to the earth. Morphing video games will appear in arcades and on Super Nintendo cartridges, but by that stage the technology will have been redeployed in narratives of combat, destruction, and victory. Or maybe well all be able to turn the technology on ourselves.

Communing In Color, Becoming the Other

I want to make a movie that uses morphing technology. It's short, avant-garde, and very expensive — just the sort of film I can write about and will probably never make. It takes place on a typical downtown street. Because of someones lunchtime whim, everyone morphs into the person they most fear or despise. Businessmen become panhandlers and vice-versa; white women become black men (and we see their transformation); the poor become presidents, police, and other figures of false promise; fat become thin and thin fat. We see it all, observing in minute detail the adjustments, the changes in shape, color, and attire. It all takes a minute or two — and guess what? The world wouldn't have changed at all. Some might think my film depressing, but I think it therapeutic. Of course, the film may conflate notions of fear and desire, but that's o.k.. We need to be able to map ourselves not only onto those idealized images that the media provide for us to consume, but onto those we generally shy away from, demonize or shun. In seeing ourselves become the identities from whom we recoil, we may witness a neutralization of our fear or hatred, and understand a little better what it must be like as the other.

In Michael Jackson's music video Black or White, the pop star and his production crew treat us to a similar fantasy. Although Jackson doesn't base his concept on anything so negative as fear or hate, the series of smiling faces provides audiences with a wide range of entry points, friendly mirrors with whom we can identify. And the moment we complete the circuit with one face, a mellow Sumo wrestler for instance, he shakes his head and (like Samantha wiggling her nose) activates the morph that changes him into a thin, black woman, who continues to smile at us in her own way, inviting us to accept her contact, moments before she twists her head, bleaches, freckles, and sprouts red hair. The series continues: Rasta man, Indian woman, black man, asian man, asian woman, white man, asian woman, latino man, white man, white woman, black woman, all singing 'yeah, yeah, yeah;' and each permutation of the human face dissolves whatever comfort , desire, or anxiety we may have felt with the previous face, while offering us a new form of identification. The bonds we form are admittedly superficial; the actors and actresses all embody model characteristics of many groups: symmetrical faces, clear complexions, and straight white teeth solicit our involvement. And this is not *bad*, this is not *dangerous*; in fact, it's lots of fun, perhaps even therapeutic for a bigot who might ordinarily change the channel when images of racial others invade her home. The shots of these others are like little inoculations of otherness; and the morphing acts like a serum, making sure the images flow and absorb — not a whole show to assimilate, just a fleeting recognition, a smile, a meeting of eyes and nose and mouth.

Michael Jackson, What Art Thou?

According to the man in the mirror, 'it doesn't matter whether you're black or white,' a liberal notion harkening back to Dr. King's dream of a time when individuals would be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character. Jackson appears to have consulted other doctors before reaching this conclusion, and I wonder whether plastic surgeons have their own ways of presenting beautified, morphed amalgams to their unhappy prospective patients; if they don't now, they surely will.... Despite Jackson's nose surgery (which he admits having) and the chin and lip jobs (which he denies), I doubt the man truly wanted to be wholly white. Looking beyond the heavy make-up, we see a man unwilling to be wholly anything, except defiant of categories. Michael is a person content to remain between our conventional frames. Both black and white, adult and child, artist and businessman, innocent and sexual being, he asserts identities and nevertheless remains elusive; if we try to fix him, he transforms, or escapes to his Neverland Valley Ranch to commune with less judgmental children and animals. In the context of exotic zoos and juvenile playmates, the group of representative individuals in his video appears like another collection — well-provided for, affectionate, and affirming, 'We like you, and we are like you,' changing all the time.

Yet Michael is generous. In presenting these faces to us, he makes available both the mobility and the acceptance that he enjoys as a worldwide celebrity, who can walk from a dance with African tribesmen to another with Siamese women, before hopping into a Western, where he stomps with Native Americans atop a huge grey box as horseriding Indians hoot and shoot it up around them. Jackson shares his travels, and can perform with the natives, but somehow he always remains himself, and perhaps this is dangerous. What is the nature of this roaming self? When the 'smiling faces morphing sequence' ends, the director asks the last woman, 'How do you do that?' ironically naturalizing the special effects, as though a single woman might herself perform each and every identity represented in the previous stream. The camera then pulls back to reveal not the computers that made the morphing possible, but the cinematic apparatus: cameras, lights, and monitors. A black panther slips out to the street unnoticed, only to morph into a primal Michael who screams, growls, touches himself, and destroys racial slogans painted on windows — all while literally dancing up a storm. I cannot resist describing a climactic moment of this violent rampage. Mimicking Spike Lee's character in Do the Right Thing, Jackson heaves a garbage can through the front window of the presumably guilty building; the glass shatters, but the building spits the can back onto the street, spilling 'white trash' all over the place as it does so. Jackson performs some more, affects a weakly symbolic revolt when he brings down the 'Royal Arms Hotel' sign, and morphs into a black panther once again at the end of the sequence, slinking away from the destruction under the glow of a street lamp. Here, Michael Jackson wants to have it both ways: far from celebrating the irrelevance of color, he becomes a symbol of a violent, racially nationalized identity politics. I guess he didn't want people to think he sold out — that he still had some pepsi (I mean pep).

The 'black panther sequence' as I'll call it, created some controversy after it aired. Some reacted to Jackson's masturbatory antics, but most questioned the violence. The Fox network censored the sequence (which was too long for a music video anyway), then reversed its decision. Jackson issued a statement explaining that as a role model he did not wish to condone violent behavior, and that the dance expressed 'the animalistic instincts of the panther.' Whatever his intentions, ending his multicultural journey as a symbol of black power appears to contradict the lyrics that earlier asserted 'I'm not gonna spend my life being a color.'

Panthers and Cyborgs and Scares

While the 'King of Pop' morphs back into a panther after his tantrum, suggesting his desire to be regarded as, among other things, also the epitome of black, the T1000 cyborg in James Cameron's 1992 sci-fi thriller, Terminator 2: Judgment Day returns again and again to a shape of a different color: white. I use the term 'cyborg' erringly, I think, because the term refers to a blend of man and machine; but aside from the various performances of human identity, this machine lacks both flesh and faith. Fashioned from mimetic polyalloy (liquid metal) by the paranoid supercomputer of the future, Skynet, the T1000 has both a mission and intelligence; it can learn, and does so by reading its environment through touch. That the T1000 first appears as a white man, and continues to morph back into this essential identity negates the liberatory functions of morphing we saw in the 'smiling faces sequence' of Black or White, in which becoming someone new was a sort of magical pleasure — safe, because the other wasn't so different after all, and gave him-or herself willingly to the transformation. In T2, morphing into an Other generally requires their termination, an unhappy occasion for the subject of what becomes in this case, a colonial technology. The T1000 lays claim to power in its original form, and extends this claim by morphing into the identities of others when their roles can better suit its aims. Arriving in 20th century Los Angeles as a white man is no casting accident. This identity automatically confers more mobility and authority than another race or gender would allow. The T1000 multiplies his access to power incalculably when he assumes the identity of a policeman with a car, eliminating the man in the process of duplication. The policeman's vital energy is not entirely lost, however; it resurfaces later, along with the identities of the others the T1000 replaces, in the sequence marking the T1000's own dissolution.

While this morphing terminator can duplicate others, it cannot do so entirely; some features of the individuals he can mimic, but he cannot express qualities that reside beyond the realms of sight, sound, and touch. One such quality is personality. In contrast to some who use performance as ironic commentary, often badly mimicking the subjects they choose to artfully expose, the T1000 seeks exactitude, and calculates correctly that a fidelity to the obvious senses will often deceive whoever he must in order to further his mission; he reduces identity to image and spectacle. His solution is not foolproof, however; and when his telephone impersonation of John Connor's stepmother simulates her voice correctly, but her personality incorrectly, we realize the limits of his ability to perform another identity (and the persuasive power of vision, in contrast to the subtle, evidentiary value of the spoken word). The moment identifies a problem for anyone who wishes to perform another identity without actually becoming the other during that time. A convincing performance would entail something like method acting: feeling the emotions of the character *in context*, something the T1000 is not programmed to do. His high success rate at deceiving people shows how superficially we assess identity, and how little it takes to pass as someone else.

Wet Nightmares In the Melting Pot

Morphing lends the T1000 an array of other powers designed to make him the scariest of terminators. He can heal himself, disappear into the floor, flow through any space, and reconstitute himself if ever divided into two or more parts. This mercury-like cohesion makes the T1000 one of the most essential identities around; and though he can morph into any other object of his approximate displacement, he is paradoxically the most exclusive identity. Unlike robots with moving parts, whose parts are replaceable, all of the T1000's parts are interchangeable, and each component contains the intelligence of the whole. They display the qualities of willful DNA, bent on reconstituting the whole organization immediately after the slightest intrusion. This ability to reintegrate depends upon the maintenance of a liquid metal state. When the T1000 freezes in the pool of liquid nitrogen, its own state of liquidity ceases. Legs break off where they stand; an arm severs at the elbow as the machine watches itself in comic horror. Schwarzenegger's 'good terminator' then shoots the T1000, shattering it into at least a thousand separate pieces, and they exist for a moment, spread out across the surface of the factory floor, each a particle of diaspora consciousness, with a memory of cohesion and (in the director's cut) a vulnerability to the materials that surround it. Melting again, these particles are no longer pure; they're contaminated with traces of the factory world that invisibly permeates their structure, like Hasidic Jews who breath the smog of cars even as they walk to temple on Shabbat. And though these particles regather, and form the man again, we see that somethings wrong. The steel grate he steps on absorbs into his legs; the rail he grabs infects his arms with its texture. It's morphing run amok. The previously conscious decision to morph into something else, to perform, squeeze through, or wade, now reverses itself; the world he would master through his total invulnerability to its incursions now acts on him, assimilates him. But Cameron or others felt this sub-theme would be lost on audiences, so they allowed the T1000 to remain a 'pure' morphing machine until the end.

We ask: What could possibly destroy him? The answer: Only an immersion in a vat full of the very materials from which he was made — a melting pot, in which his own substance would mix and react so thoroughly with the liquid metal surrounding it that all memory of an originary identity would be lost. As his whiteness turns to magma, the film suggests that even this most pernicious of essentialized identities can be shattered, is permeable, and will succumb to the melting pot. Something spectacular happens during this final assimilation. As if to show that performing, without in some sense becoming, robs others and leaves a residue of their pain, the victims of his deadly, incorporative morphing haunt the melting T1000, writhing free of their captor. The appearance of these faces on the head of the melting cyborg — and I say cyborg now because we see he did contain some humanity after all — signals the return of the dispossessed, individual identities as they struggle to re-emerge from the cage of a single, oppressive identity. Paradoxically, the meltdown that liberates these identities dissolves the barriers, programs, or files that confine them; but this melting also threatens their singularity. As the metal acts on the machine, its spasmodic contortions lessen; the wrinkles of identity melt away; it screams but finally melds with the whirlpool of metal. Without advocating a total meltdown of all identity (for without heroes, who would save the earth?), the film nevertheless appears to prefer this option to a deadly essentialism that morphs not to meet or experience another, but to use and annihilate in the process.

T2 reveals the tyranny of fixed scripts. A transformational identity politics would do away with fixed scripts, giving us instead scripts we can alter; and this recasting always entails some melting. Our transforming selves emerge most smilingly when we feel a fluidity between our usually intractable selves and the others we might become. Ideologies telling us who or what we must be (and who or what others are) remain in place only so long as we adhere to their contours. But 'becoming' has its dangers as we observed. Seen this way, we might consider morphing as an analogy for the ways we identify with others — both in its utopian capacity for showing empathic being and in its more deceptive performances.

Ron Alcalay is a Ph.D. candidate in American literature at U.C. Berkeley, where he currently teaches film. He wishes to thank Ben Rollins, Joe Sartelle, Alex Cohen, and the members of the Bad Subjects Collective for their dialogue about this piece. He can be reached at

Copyright © by Ron Alcalay 1995. All rights reserved.