Last night, HBO’s Fahrenheit 451 brought the eponymous 1953 classic novel by Ray Bradbury into the 21st century. The television movie stars Michael B. Jordan as Guy Montag, a "firefighter” in a dystopian America where books and other forms of media are outlawed and burned on sight. Suddenly disillusioned with the revisionist history he’s learned under the authoritarian regime, Montag betrays the firefighters and joins an underground resistance. The themes of censorship, fake news, propaganda, and the revolution bubbling just below the surface in the face of such suppression are more timely than ever. Unfortunately, Fahrenheit 451 isn’t paced in a way to put these themes in serious conversation with our current world. Sure, it’s great that Jordan, a Black man, has been cast in the leading role. But at every moment where the film could have dug its heels deeper into conversations about gender, race, and citizenship it didn’t. However, there is one thing that the 2018 version got right: that Black women usually have the answers.
Members of the resistance in Fahrenheit 451 are called “eels.” They have formed an outlaw network of hackers, moles, teachers, and other operatives who have made it their goal to keep the true values of critical thinking, literature, and press alive. This is accomplished primarily by assigning eels specific pieces of literature to memorize. Under the world in Fahrenheit 451, the mind is the strongest weapon of resistance, so long as you remain uncaptured by “firefighters” who can wipe your identity. At the highest levels of the eel hierarchy is OMNIS, a single strand of DNA that has encoded within it, every piece of literature and art. In the film OMNIS is stored within a bird — yes, a literal bird — to not only keep it hidden from firefighters, but safe even in the case of a nuclear bomb. The person charged with guarding this bird and sending it to Canada, where the world has not yet gone to oppressive shit.
In a top secret, off the grid farmhouse, a woman who identifies only as the author whose literary work she has memorized, Toni Morrison (Khandi Alexander, who also played Maya Pope in Scandal) is the leader of the core group of eels protecting OMNIS. She is tough and smart. She knows better than to trust Montag the moment he arrives, so she instructs him see an execution through. However, she is compassionate enough to allow him to actually go through with said execution. She is training a young girl to memorize a book of her own and has the vision to save the country from themselves. Did I mention she identifies day-to-day as Toni Morrison? In a film that tends to be uninspiring even in the thick of the action with a protagonist who was uniquely dense, she gave me hope for the film as it neared conclusion.
Toni Morrison is just the latest Black woman to boost the profile of a film. The biggest movie hits of 2017, like Girls Trip and Hidden Figures were helmed by women. Both of them took advantage of the humor and innovation, respectively, of this group to relate to audiences. Black Panther was a amazing movie in its own right. But it wouldn’t have been the cultural phenomenon it was had it not been for the all-female kingsguard, a science wiz princess, and a Wakandan spy, all of them Black women.
Combining these powerful media representations with the reality that Black women have been killing it in the polls, organizing to make American a better place, and setting style trends the whole while. From politics to pop culture, Black women have been leading the way to the right side of history. As Fahrenheit 451 often struggled to find its way, betting the future of their world on a Black woman was the best choice.