‘Tenet’ looks to the future but remains stuck in the past with familiar trope

OPINION: When will Black women get a chance to be damsels in distress to be saved by a dashing hero?

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This is not a review of Christopher Nolan’s new movie Tenet, not really. It’s also not a recap, because my brain cells and powers of communication aren’t developed enough to break that convoluted plot down but thankfully, there is someone who has.

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If you haven’t seen the movie, warning, spoilers ahead. If you have, it won’t make much difference because you’ll still need to see it a few times along with a recap/breakdown to figure out exactly what happened.

I can tell you that handsome bearded bae John David Washington plays a man whose name we never quite know but who calls himself the Protagonist, so you know he’s important. Or maybe it’s his CIA code name?

Basically, P, as we’ll call him, has been sent from the future back to the past to assist writer/director Nolan’s fevered imagination and obvious fascination with space/time continuums. OK, while that’s also true, in Tenet, P has actually been sent from the future to stop World War III.

He’s assisted in this quest by Twilight star Robert Pattinson, who’s thankfully lost the unhealthy pallor of his time in the teen vamp franchise. In fact, for an Englishman, he’s now rather tan, which is likely helpful when you have World Wars to stave off. All that time in the field with no sunscreen could become an issue.

John David Washington Tenet movies actors
John David Washington attends the Virtuosos Award Presented By UGG during the 34th Santa Barbara International Film Festival at Arlington Theatre on February 5, 2019 in Santa Barbara, California. (Photo by Emma McIntyre/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Anyway, Pattinson is Neil, who is listed as P’s handler for the purposes of helping him stop the future destruction of the world. P is now part of a secret agent society called Tenet which seems to be made up of people who have no other designation than working for a secret agent society. So if you were expecting M15, CIA, KGB, nope, just Tenet.

If you’re thinking that so far, this movie sounds like James Bond meets The Matrix, you’d be right. To make that comparison even more accurate, P and Neil are soon off to meet a dangerous Indian (from India, not a Native American, just so we’re clear) arms dealer who manufactures inverted bullets that allow for them to be fired in from the future, or something like that.

Close enough, because it allows for P and Neil to bungee jump into a heavily guarded home to confront said arms dealer. Why would an arms dealer with armed security guards live in a home with multiple terraces, though? But I digress.

Tenet John David Washington thegrio.com
(Credit: Tenet)

The arms dealer turns out to be a beautiful Indian woman, Priya Singh (Dimple Kapadia) who is also part of Tenet. She leads them to scary Russian billionaire Andrei Sator, played by Irish actor Kenneth Branagh because apparently Russians aren’t that concerned about representation so an actual Russian actor wasn’t required.  

This is when we are introduced to Kat, Sator’s wife, played by Australian actress Elizabeth Debicki, an extremely tall Hitchcockian blonde (for those of you uninformed about classic cinema, Alfred Hitchcock was the director known for creepy films like The Birds and Psycho who often cast cool blondes in lead roles only to terrorize them).

So here’s the thing. I like John David and overall I liked Tenet. It’s the kind of apocalyptic mind-bending, time-traveling with spies kind of movie I enjoy even when the plot doesn’t really make sense.

Nolan, the director of Inception, Interstellar, and The Dark Knight trilogy, gets the kind of budgets to go HAM on special effects and stunts – in this case, a highway chase with the world’s greatest BMW SUV driver reminiscent of the one with the Caddy trucks in Matrix 2. Yep, caught that, Chris!

Despite all these positives, the movie descends into that decidedly dated yet surprisingly enduring film trope: Save the White Woman at All Costs. According to Vulture, this is a rarity for Nolan, who in his previous ten films knocked off or marginalized white female characters with chilling aplomb.

"The Burnt Orange Heresy" Photocall - 76th Venice Film Festival - The 76th Venice Film Festival
Actress Elizabeth Debicki is the White Woman Who Must Be Saved At All Costs in ‘Tenet.'(Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images)

But once he allows one to live – it falls to a Black man, P, to save her. Neil isn’t quite as interested in the STWWAAC mission, as he’s more focused on saving, you know, humanity.

However, our principled, earnest lead will not let Kat die, even though he has not one even remotely sexual moment with her after a brief meeting. She’s only the connection to Satori and his future bullet manufacturing lab.

Shouldn’t P at least get some if he’s going to spend the rest of the movie ensuring that both she and her son live? Ya’ll know that would neva happen in a Bond film! Maybe someone just didn’t think the height difference between the two actors would be credible? Debicki is listed at 6’3 while JDW is, allegedly, 5’9. Surely, in bed, some creative angles could have worked.  

Nolan likely wrote Kat’s role as a way to provide action in the film’s second act and to rachet up the suspense in the third since Satori has to be neutralized to stop future devastation. But once again, white women in movies are idealized and protected without having to do anything but exist, in a way Black women are not now and never have been.

Had a Black woman been cast as Kat, Tenet would have then been considered a ‘Black’ movie with a much smaller budget and box office projection even with Nolan at the helm. He likely didn’t even consider the racial dynamics. Why would he when they’ve been so established for so long?

Fourth Annual Kodak Film Awards
Christopher Nolan speaks onstage during the Fourth Annual Kodak Film Awards at ASC Clubhouse on January 29, 2020 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Rachel Murray/Getty Images for Kodak)

Think fast – give me a big-budget Hollywood film where a Black woman, instead of being the victim or perpetrator of violence and without having to fall in love with/have sex with the lead, becomes a damsel-in-distress that must be saved, even when greater things are at hand.

I don’t blame John David. He was able to front a Christopher Nolan movie, do some great action scenes, and proclaim “I am the Protagonist” multiple times. Maybe that was Nolan’s subtle nod to the fact that there are still far fewer Black protagonists in mainstream films, and in this one, JDW is the only Black person in the movie.

His father Denzel Washington, of course, became a superstar leading man alongside white women who needed to be Saved At Any Cost. Though, in fairness, the senior Washington came up in a different era and over the latter part of his career made up for it with a wider variety of work.

Though still early in his career, JDW was the lead in BlackKkKlansman directed by Spike Lee, as his father once was, and his IMDB credits reflect other roles in films with Black casts. It’s likely his career will follow a similar pattern.

So I have high hopes for the future – now that The Protagonist has saved it. I hope John David, a compelling onscreen presence has a long and fruitful career. And that at some point, there’s an actress or actresses that can collaborate with him to create the Save the Black Woman At All Costs trope. I’m thinking that’s a trope I’ll be happy to embrace.

Watch the Tenet trailer below:

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