Where does modern-day racism come from? There’s a recent movie that inadvertently attempts to answer this question, Assassin’s Creed (2016). The film did not do particularly well in theaters, making only $54.6 million in the US, and just under $241 million worldwide. Perhaps the rise of Donald Trump as president made its themes hit too close to home for too many moviegoers. But somehow, the movie’s director Justin Kurzel and its writers unknowingly shot a one-hour-and-fifty-minute crash-course in racism since 1492.
The Knights Templar versus the Assassin’s Brotherhood, a fight between shared bloodlines, Roman Catholicism, and Islam, that is what the game Assassin’s Creed is about. The movie, though, is about much more. It centers the technological science-fiction wonder known as the Animus, a machine that can tap into one’s DNA and find memories passed down generations ago. The Templars use the Animus to find the Apple, the mythical codex that would theoretically allow them to eliminate free will and the ability of people like the members of The Brotherhood to resist their reign. Except that real life has already surpassed art. In 2013, scientists had already discovered that mice and humans can both store memories in a few lines of code within DNA strands across generations. The scientific term for this is transgenerational epigenetic inheritance.
There is no real-life version of the Animus yet. But it would figure that the Templars would use such a thing for their dystopian ends. The work of the Abstergo Foundation Rehabilitation Center, a subsidiary of The Templars’ corporation Abstergo Industries, fakes lead character Callum Lynch’s (Michael Fassbender) death and kidnaps him, then uses him to go back to 1492 Andalucia to find the Apple. Once Callum goes through this neurological and psychological “regression” to 1492, he embodies his assassin ancestor Aguilar de Nerha. Aguilar was the last ancient known to have possessed the Apple.
The year 1492 is important, and not just because of Christopher Columbus. It’s the year Spain unified under the joint rule of Queen Isabella I of Castile and King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Castile, as their forces drove the last Moor ruler out of Granada. That victory ended more than 750 years of Arab Muslim and Moorish rule on the Iberian Peninsula, the Reconquista, as Spanish historians have called it. Later that year, Isabella and Ferdinand expelled all remaining Jews who refused to convert to Catholicism. Spanish Muslims faced persecution from 1492 on, and eventually faced Inquisición and expulsion, too. Between 1609 and 1614, Spain forced as many as 300,000 Muslims of Arab, Moorish, and Spanish descent out of the country.
There are at least three sources from which modern-day racism springs. All are in the mix in Assassin’s Creed. The Arab world and the Trans-Saharan Trade, which included enslaved Africans in exchange for goods and knowledge, some of whom ended up in Arabesque Spain. The Iberian world of what would become Spain and Portugal, with a combination of anti-Arab and anti-Moor nationalism, racism, and Islamophobia on regular display. And, the English, the founders of Jamestown, British plantation slavery in North America and the Caribbean, and heavy contributors to the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Templars’ headquarters, by the way, are in London.
Alan Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), the CEO of Abstergo and the embodiment of modern racism, not-so-secretly plans to use the Apple to end free will. In a conversation with Ellen Kaye (Charlotte Rampling) the chairwomen of Abstergo’s board of directors, Alan Rikkin discusses the final demise of human freedom. “The threat remains while free will exists. For centuries we’ve tried, with religion, with politics, and now consumerism, to eliminate dissent. Isn’t it time we gave science a try?”
Notice how father Rikkin does not mention “systemic racism” or “capitalism,” both central in The Templars’ quest to control people over the past 500 years. This oppression disproportionately impacts the Global South, the Black, the Brown, the Indigenous, and non-Christian Europeans. It is reasonable to conclude that these religious beliefs and their thinly veiled racist beliefs are essentially the same.
One cannot help but notice these racism-based intersections. Especially when nearly every character of color in the film is part of The Brotherhood, and nearly every white character part of The Templars. The late Michael K. Williams plays the only African character in Assassin’s Creed, and he immediately brings to light the oppressive mix of religious bigotry and racism. “They call me Moussa. But my name is Baptiste. I’m dead 200 years now. Voodoo poisoner. I’m harmless,” Moussa says while stretching out his words with hand gestures, in introducing himself to Cal. Moussa confirms he and Cal and the other Assassins are prisoners, that the Templars stripped him of his past even as he reclaimed his ancestor’s name, and signaled that they will need to fight their oppressors (any of this sound familiar historically)?
Another example comes from Dr. Sofia Rikkin (Marion Cotillard), Alan Rikkin’s daughter and the head of the Animus project. “You are living proof of the connection between violence and genetics,” Sofia says to Cal when discussing the murder that led to his faked death and capture. That’s as eugenics as eugenics can get, the story of modern racism, slavery, colonization, and exploitation of people in a nutshell. This is how the social construct of racism becomes biological determinism, somehow superseding the truth that we are all related genetically.
There are people who would rather drink ground glass than admit how the US has its own special blend of white supremacist racism, one it has exported to the rest of the world. The whataboutisms set has zero interest in an actual answer to the question of racism’s origins. They are only interested in deflecting from their own complicity in white supremacist racism. Assassin’s Creed reveals as much as it deflects on how systemic racism has managed to thrive, through religion, capitalism, imperialism, and the elitist narcissism all of these -isms engender. Every American teacher of world history or European history should use Assassin’s Creed in this manner, providing entertainment with subliminal critical race theory hidden well enough for most white supremacists to not notice. I think.