We are the ones they left behind
And I wonder when we are ever going to change
Living under the fear till nothing else remains.
—Tina Turner, “We Don’t Need Another Hero”
Eli (Denzel Washington) is headed west. No matter who asks him or what gets in his way, he keeps on—walking, walking, walking west. What he expects to find out there is unclear, as the world has been destroyed by “The Flash” some 31 years ago. At the beginning of The Book of Eli, he’s resolute and focused, undistracted by people in need or wrongs in need of righting. Striding over a desolate landscape by day, he takes time at night to read his titular book, most content when his iPod has enough juice to play Al Green into the wee hours.
Such private moments suggest that the battle-scarred Eli has found a way to maintain his ever-valuable “humanity,” like other heroes of films like his, that is, films about post-apocalyptic survivors. This even though his public performance—for those chance marauders he finds during his travels—are definitively intimidating. Like Mad Max, his most obvious model, Eli is hardened by his environment, wary and wise, ruthless when necessary. His fighting prowess is made clear during an early encounter, when a gang of gnarly-teethed thugs try to steal his backpack. Under a hazy brown-toned sky—and even more dramatically, under the shadow of a broken highway overpass—he dispatches all the ruffians with swift, bone-breaking skill, their bodies flying through the air before thudding to the ground, limp, as Eli barely musses his coat.
Before you can say “Aunty Entity,” Eli’s dusted himself off and started west again, in order to be picked up by an overtly bad man who means to rule what little is left of the world. This would be the significantly named Carnegie (Gary Oldman), who regularly sends out bands of thugs to collect material and food. He’s set up shop in an Old-West-looking town, with an office above the saloon and liquor and women available to keep crowds distracted. He has his own woman, Claudia (Jennifer Beals), whom he pacifies with luxuries like shampoo and water. She’s blind, which signals somehow that she has a useful “sense” about people, though apparently not useful enough that Carnegie will attend to her when she cautions that Eli is “different than the others: you’re not going to be able to make him do what you want him to do.” Predictably, the observation only makes Carnegie more determined to bring the stranger into line—a determination doubled when he hears about the book. Carnegie believes the book will help him manage the population.
It happens that Carnegie and Eli are both old enough to remember the world before The Flash, and both are literate, unlike everyone under 30. The encounter with Carnegie thus grants Eli a bit more context than he’s had before and more or less reveals that the book is what you guess it is. This revelation introduces a question, namely, how does Allen and Albert Hughes’ movie present the Bible? As Carnegie and Eli so obviously embody evil and good, their parallel investments in the book argue that, in and of itself, the book is neither, that only its use produces its moral value. As assessments of religion go, this is a fairly nuanced point for a mainstream U.S. movie to make.
Except that, of course, the movie doesn’t quite make that point. Rather, it unsurprisingly stacks the deck in favor of good warrior Eli, who only deploys his killing skills against those deserving punishment and turns down the temptations offered by Carnegie—including liquor and Solara (Mila Kunis). Locked in a room overnight (a room where the décor includes a tattered poster of that most cultish of post-apocalyptic movies, A Boy and His Dog), Eli teaches Solara how to pray but won’t let her touch the book (it’s not clear why he lets her know he has it—except that it sets in motion Carnegie’s pursuit of it). Solara is a tough girl, if rather tediously naïve. And so she must tag along with Eli as he eludes Carnegie’s henchmen—including Redridge (Ray Stevenson), whose own desire for Solara is less than chaste—in order that he has someone to protect during the last stages of his journey west.
Eli and Solara maintain a very wholesome liaison, such that she’s more of a daughter or disciple than a partner. In this the film leaves unaddressed the question of their apparently distinct races (a question left vaguely open, given that she is kind of beige and Claudia’s child), or more to the point, the new, from-the-ashes’ society’s understanding or organization of race and racism.
If Eli is a prophet, he’s a black one, and his dedication to the project of spreading the word (however limited that project may be in his own audience, Solara), is thus raced in a particular way that the movie doesn’t examine. Is he only spreading a word initially written by white men—whether or not instructed by God—or does his very existence reshape the relationship between that word and the people who believe it? Based on what the film shows, not many people of color appear to have survived The Flash or its reportedly horrific aftermath. If that’s the case, that last question may be moot.