In Tori’s review of Maleficent: Mistress of Evil (which you obviously should read), she notes how this sequel to Maleficent makes a somewhat political statement about the nature of love:
Ultimately the twist on “love conquers all” here is one about accepting your neighbor, and the choice not to fight — to lay down past prejudices and present xenophobic zealotry and try to move forward together.
And I was intrigued, so I saw the film last weekend, and Tori hit the nail right on the head: Mistress of Evil shifts a bit from being a movie about an unlikely sort of mother/daughter relationship to being a movie about fraught political tensions and an unlikely alliance between two warring realms, sealed by a marriage. That’s actually surprisingly historically accurate for a Disney movie, because hey, what did you think marriage was for back in the day? But what disappointed me about Mistress of Evil was something else that’s said about love in the film’s final few minutes.
SPOILERS FOR MALEFICENT: MISTRESS OF EVIL AHEAD
In the film, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Queen Ingrith of Ulstead is a xenophobic, nationalist warmonger who devises numerous ways to kill as many fae as possible. She approves the capture and kidnapping of fae; she employs a pixie whom she has brainwashed to experiment on the fae; and her ultimate dream is to take over the Moors, kill all of its magical inhabitants, and strip the land of its resources. She’s basically the British and American imperialist powers conspiring to divide up Africa and Asia and South America and the Middle East for themselves, especially because when we meet the Dark Fae of whom Maleficent is a descendant, they’re described as being driven out of every corner of the earth. And yet after Ingrith wages a widespread genocide against the fae, seemingly killing hundreds of them, her punishment is being turned into a goat (seriously), and approximately 5 minutes after the genocide is forcibly stopped by Maleficent, the humans of Ulstead and the remaining fae of the Moors come together to see Queen Aurora (Elle Fanning) and Prince Philip (Harris Dickinson) get married. I’m not kidding; it’s maybe 10 minutes of time in the film’s narrative between when Dark Fae are being exploded out of the sky by Ingrith’s bombs lobbed at them by human soldiers, and when both groups are standing next to each other clapping politely at the continuation of another monarchy.
At said wedding, the priest marrying Aurora and Philip, whose union is meant to heal the violence between their two lands, says this: “We’re not defined by where we’re from, but who we love.” And I’m sorry, but that is some bullshit. That is the whitest thing I have ever heard in a Disney movie, aside from the actually racist ones from back in the day, like the animated Dumbo. But you get what I’m saying, right? Of course, any person from anywhere should be able to love any other person from any other where. I’m in an interracial relationship; I live this every day. But the idea that an individual can be entirely divorced from their heritage and their history is an impressively flattening idea of what love is supposed to be. This is basically a spin on the “I don’t see color” defense made by people who claim there’s no way they can be racist. You might pretend not to see color, but it’s there, and it symbolizes something. It’s an identity. It’s selfhood. It’s culture. It’s not something you can just choose to diminish because you think it somehow makes you more enlightened; it actually just makes you ignorant.
In Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, that statement is meant to paper over the fact that the humans have been killing the fae for, like, years, right up until immediately before the wedding! They were literally just waging a propaganda-fueled war against a minority group for natural resources! But it is upon the fae to forgive their tormentors and their captors and their murderers. And that’s not even touching the fact that Aurora, a human, is named queen of the Moors by Maleficent, a fae, and that it is Aurora’s mistrust of Maleficent, a being who has loved her and cared for her for years and who just so happens to look different, that helps cause the war perpetrated by the humans, led by Aurora’s future mother in law, who I must repeat, for her crime of genocide is punished by being turned into a goat. Whoa, that really makes up for all the ethnic cleansing!
I understand that Mistress of Evil is a family film, and I’m not saying I expected Maleficent to roll out a guillotine to take care of Ingrith (cough that is totally what I am saying cough). But I am insisting that the film’s depiction of love as something that is purely individualistic, as if an individual isn’t shaped by where they came from and who raised them and with whom they surround themselves, is an exceptionally privileged take. Philip even says to Aurora at some point that he loves her because of how she was shaped by her time on the Moors, but that’s not how the film ends. The film ends with the presentation of marriage as the ultimate end-all, be-all, as something that magically wipes away every aspect of your individuality but your love for the other person that exists in a sort of vaccuum, and that’s a depressingly flattening take that is also present in Amazon’s recent Modern Love series.
A partnership with the New York Times, the Modern Love miniseries selects eight different essays from the NYT column and adapts them into episodes. Some details from each essay are changed, but you’ll notice one commonality: White women are by far the most common protagonists in these stories, and in the romantic narratives, are often paired with men of different races—men whose backgrounds aren’t explored. Anne Hathaway’s bipolar character is the focus in “Take Me as I Am, Whoever I Am”; Gary Carr’s Jeff is only there to further her story. The same goes for James Saito’s Kenji alongside Jane Alexander’s Margot in “The Race Grows Sweeter Near Its Final Lap,” and Dev Patel’s Joshua paired with Catherine Keener’s Julie in “When Cupid is a Prying Journalist.” Ostensibly, these stories of modern love are about partnership, but are partnerships legitimately equal when only one perspective and one experience is given primacy? I wanted to know more about the backgrounds of these men of color, and goddammit, I wanted a woman of color as a protagonist, too. Again: It does matter where you’re from, because that matters when you fall in love—not in an exclusionary way, but in a deepening way. How can you love someone if you don’t know where they come from, if you don’t care about that?
What was most irritating about the way Maleficent: Mistress of Evil presented this faux-wisdom was that after the officiant made this statement, the film cuts to two black characters, the previously war-hungry Percival, played by David Gyasi, and the Dark Fae Shrike (Judith Shekoni), who glance at each other in a romantically coded way. Sure, Percival had minutes ago proclaimed his desire to kill all Dark Fae, and sure, Shrike just saw her family and friends slaughtered by humans commanded by Percival. But hey, did you notice that they have the same shade of skin color? Um, they’re definitely going to fall in love now!
We should be used to this barely there representation in live-action Disney remakes by now; the studio pulled off something similar with that “gay moment” in Beauty and the Beast. I just wish they wouldn’t be so limiting in their understanding of love alongside their cynicism.