Can Robots Help Us Work Out Our Class Issues?

I’ve written before that the British are much better than we are at making movies about class because the British entertainment industry appears to accept as a first principle that working-class people exist and that they exist as fully realized human beings, so they can be specific and interesting about things like the culture of council housing, as in projects like Attack the Block. So it’s interesting to see this dreamy short movie that subs out the Afro-Caribbean poor in the 1981 Brixton riots for robots:

We’re pretty good at depicting actual oppressed people in other struggles here in the U.S., be it against racism or for gay rights. And for some reason, we’re okay with movie depictions of working-class people if they’re fighting fairly targeted campaigns against companies, whether it’s for protection against sexual harassment in North Country or for unionization — as long as it’s in the past, or even better, in the past and in a foreign country like in Made in Dagenham — or if they’re adorable children or surly teenagers who will presumably rise out of poverty via the transformative power of education as embodied in a single noble teacher. And it’s true we’ve got a couple of shows about characters who are not just working-class but struggling, Raising Hope and Shameless (which is, of course, a remake of a British original).

But I wonder if we might have more day-to-day depictions of genuinely working-class and poor characters if those characters weren’t always human. Obviously, the aliens in District 9 are a metaphor for the impacts of apartheid more than anything else, but one of the means of enforcing apartheid was economic: the so-called “homelands” weren’t exactly rich in mining or agriculturally productive land, and people who lived in the homelands were treated as migrant workers when they took jobs outside of those territories. The prawns are scary because they’re aliens, but South Africa’s able to stigmatize them by economically isolating them, charging them insanely inflationary prices for the cat food that they prefer, spreading rumors about their sexual practices, confining them to substandard housing and then evicting them from it.

Similarly, the robots of Brixton obviously aren’t human, but in a way, by removing factors like race from the equation, I wonder if it might be easier for audiences to feel bad about the idea of doing things to robots that we’re perfectly comfortable with businesses and governments doing to actual humans. Of course, the problem then is transferring that sympathy to actual people, and that outrage to actual policies. But if we can find alternative ways into conversations that won’t make people shut down, it’s a start.