Mo’ Reviews: Black Bodies Fuel ‘The Passage’

Synopsis (FOX):

Based on author Justin Cronin’s best-selling trilogy of the same name, THE PASSAGE is an epic, character-driven thriller written by Liz Heldens (“Friday Night Lights”).

Executive-produced by Emmy Award winner and Academy Award and Golden Globe nominee Ridley Scott (“The Martian,” “Gladiator”) and writer/director Matt Reeves (“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” “Cloverfield”), THE PASSAGE focuses on Project NOAH, a secret medical facility where scientists are experimenting with a dangerous virus that could lead to the cure for all disease, but also carries the potential to wipe out the human race. When a young girl, AMY BELLAFONTE (Saniyya Sidney, “Fences,” “Hidden Figures”), is chosen to be a test subject, Federal Agent BRAD WOLGAST (Mark-Paul Gosselaar, “Pitch”) is the man who is tasked with bringing her to Project NOAH. Ultimately, however, Wolgast becomes her surrogate father, trying to protect her at any cost.

Brad and Amy’s journey will force them to confront Project NOAH’s lead scientists, MAJOR NICHOLE SYKES (Caroline Chikezie, “The Shannara Chronicles”) and DR. JONAS LEAR (Henry Ian Cusick, “Lost”), as well as the hardened former Navy Operative CLARK RICHARDS (Vincent Piazza, “Boardwalk Empire,” “Rescue Me”), whom Brad trained. It likewise brings them face-to-face with a dangerous new race of beings confined within the walls of Project NOAH, including former scientist TIM FANNING (Jamie McShane, “Bosch,” “Bloodline,” “Sons of Anarchy”) and death-row inmates SHAUNA BABCOCK (Brianne Howey, “The Exorcist”) and ANTHONY CARTER (McKinley Belcher III, “Ozark,” “Mercy Street”). In seeking out any allies he can find, Brad also turns to his former wife, DR. LILA KYLE (Emmanuelle Chriqui, “Entourage,” “Murder in the First”), for help.

But as Project NOAH’s scientists hone in on a cure that could save humanity, these new beings begin to test their own powers, inching one step closer to an escape that could lead to an unimaginable apocalypse.

THE PASSAGE is produced by 20th Century Fox Television. The series is written by Liz Heldens. Heldens, Matt Reeves, Ridley Scott, David W. Zucker, Adam Kassan and Jason Ensler are executive producers. Marcos Siega served as an executive producer on the pilot, and he and Ensler directed the series premiere.

FOX

Monique’s Review:

Fox has a storied history with sci-fi shows. To be specific, they have a tendency to mistreat and ruin the awesome projects they acquire. Almost Human and, most importantly, Sleepy Hollow are just two of the most recent examples. However, if Fox has learned anything from its past, it should know that The Passage has the potential to be the next Sleepy Hollow in terms of popularity. With that said, hopefully this means they won’t squander it.

The core of The Passage revolves around Amy Bellafonte (Sidney), a girl who loses her mother to a supposed drug overdose (but it’s probably got something to do with the government). It’s only too fortuitous that her mother dies, because the government is trying to recruit her body for a medical test. They have been working on creating a cure for a fast-moving illness which would hit the U.S. in a short amount of time (within the show’s universe, of course). Therefore, they’re ratcheting up the tests. So far, each human test has resulted in, what is essentially, a vampire. However, they feel the successful test will be done with a child’s blood.

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Jamie McShane as Dr. Tim Fanning in The Pasage. CR: Eliza Morse/FOX. Tim Fanning looks creepy as a greenish pallor removes his humanity. He has yellow eyes with dark rings around his irises. Green and red veins are all over his skin. Dark, dried blood is over his mouth and chin.
Jamie McShane as Dr. Tim Fanning in The Pasage.CR: Eliza Morse/FOX

Of course, all of this is unethical, regardless of if the test is successful. But the notion that Amy is a girl no one cares about–something both the scientists and Amy herself reiterate–speaks to a very real cultural phenomenon surrounding black women and girls. Routinely, we’re seen as being the lowest on the totem pole. If Surviving R. Kelly proved anything aside from R. Kelly being a horrible individual who needs to be behind bars, it’s that black females are often left unprotected, underserved, and abused by the systems of racism and sexism.

This has been the way of the United States since slavery times. How else could Henrietta Lacks‘ cells be used without her or her family’s consent to create breakthrough cancer treatments? How else could the supposed “father of gynecology,” James Marion Sims, get away with performing surgeries on black women without any anesthesia?

It’s important to note how the show also focuses on the degradation of black men at the hands of the government. In their tests, the scientists have only done tests on high-risk prisoners–people who have done the worst of the worst. One of these prisoners includes Anthony Carter (Belcher) who is in prison for some type of crime, but certainly nothing bad enough that warrants him being a prime candidate for vampirism.

 L-R: McKinley Belcher III as Anthony and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Brad in The Passage.  CR: Eliza Morse / FOX. Anthony is in a grey prison jumpsuit and has handcuffs on his wrists. Brad is in a dark suit with blue dress shirt and dark blue tie.
L-R: McKinley Belcher III as Anthony and Mark-Paul Gosselaar as Brad in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse / FOX

But seeing Belcher being offered as a new sacrifice highlights how the government has often used the bodies of black men for scientific advancement. Case in point: the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, in which black men in Alabama’s Black Belt were unknowingly given syphilis and tracked over a 40 year period for scientific research. A similar experiment by the U.S. also took place in Guatemala, in which people were infected with syphilis and other STDs.

With this backdrop, it’s uniquely interesting that the leading scientist asking for Amy is a black woman. Dr. Major Nichole Sykes (Chikezie) is a woman between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, she doesn’t want to utilize a child test subject because it’s highly unethical. But on the other hand, she doesn’t seem to have a choice if she’s going to create a cure in a short amount of time. It’s a gamble, but it could be a gamble she’ll regret in more ways than one.

Caroline Chikezie as Dr. Sykes (R) in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse / FOX. Dr. Sykes, in her white lab coat, stands at the head of a conference table where her scientific crew are meeting.
Caroline Chikezie as Dr. Sykes (R) in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse / FOX

It would be cool if the show somehow makes a commentary on how darkly ironic it is that a black woman is now the face of a government experiment that puts vulnerable black people at risk. Of course, there are other black scientists that work under Sykes and other vampires include white criminals. However, I feel like the particular focus on black vulnerability and the type of cultural cannibalism Sykes is enabling against other black people is something that should be addressed at some point, because the themes are almost too glaring, at least for me. (Maybe that’s because I actually live in Alabama, and the Tuskegee experiments are woven into the fabric of the black south).

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Whereas Sykes spikes my interest at the various ways The Passage‘s plot could go, I was almost immediately charmed by the father-daughter relationship that builds between Brad and Amy. To be clear, Brad’s hands aren’t clean by any means: he’s been the person that’s ushered most of these prisoners to a fate worse than death. However, he can’t bear to do the same to an innocent child. Also, we learn that he’s been primed and ready to be a dad for a while.

Saniyaa Sidney and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse/FOX. Amy, in a blue plaid shirt and yellow and green T-shirt with her key on her necklace, sits next to Gosselaar, who wears a dark T-shirt and khaki pants. They are waiting in a police station.
Saniyaa Sidney and Mark-Paul Gosselaar in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse/FOX

It’s also easy to see why he’d immediately become so attached to Amy. She’s a girl who just lost her mom, which only heightens how she’s a girl whose never gotten a chance to just be a kid who has the luxury of thinking about her future. To the world, she’s a lost cause without ever being given a chance. First, she’s a junkie’s daughter. Then, she’s a “troubled” foster kid with a caretaker that demands compensation for her existence. And of course, to the government, she’s just a body with fresh blood for testing. She’s never given the chance to just be a little girl. Again, the narrative sounds close to how a lot of black girls have taken to social media to talk about how various systems of thinking creates a trap for them. No matter what they do, they are often thought of as not being kids.

With so much resting on Amy as a character, you have to get a stellar child actor, and Sidney takes the role and elevates it to the point where you forget she’s playing a character. She makes the role seem so natural, which only makes what she and Brad are trying to escape from that much more dire. Similarly, Gosselaar owns his Papa Bear role, giving us a new facet to his acting (and, of course, a new place on many people’s thirst lists).

Saniyya Sidney as Amy in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse / FOX. Amy, wearing two afro puffs, a blue buton down shirt with a necklace, is sitting in the front seat of a car, looking stoically at the camera.
Saniyya Sidney as Amy in The Passage. CR: Eliza Morse / FOX

Overall, The Passage is fantastic, and I can’t wait to see where the series goes. One thing Amy says is that what we’re witnessing is the end of the world. I wonder if her statement means we’re watching the end of her world; the end of her innocence, her childhood, and her trust in the powers that be. If so, this is a loss that many of us, especially those of us of color, sadly know all too well.