Everything hinges on the viewer grasping the connection between sailing, rules made by white people to regulate black people and Darwinian theorizing.
A cynical way of dividing up the past 500 years of human history into the common periods of “early modern,” “modern” and “postmodern” eras is to look at the way white people regard black people. Specifically, this view argues that in the early modern period, white people moved black people by force into geographic spaces where they wanted them to be; in the modern age, white people restricted black people by force from moving into geographic spaces where they did not want them to be; and in the current postmodern moment white people are supposedly really trying hard to be more open-minded about the agency of black people.
Styx emphasizes our mostly-failed attempt to transition into the postmodern period. Europe is as open, cosmopolitan and humanistic as any society in recorded history, and yet, hundreds of African refugees drown trying to enter its borders. So even still, in our supposedly more enlightened age, thousands of black bodies are restricted from entering certain spaces, with only the flimsy pretense of laws and bureaucratic inertia as plausible excuses for keeping them out. How, then, are we different today from our forebears who, rather than walling off the possibility of black Africans entering their neighborhoods, instead shackled black Africans and dragged them off to far-flung locales for cheap labor?
Styx does not start off as a manifesto. It traces the grand adventure of Rieke (Susanne Wolff), a German doctor living in Gibraltar. Gibraltar here is a crucial part of the story: it is a literal symbol of Europe’s past colonial chauvinism; a British waystation (after they muscled it away from the Spanish) for centuries, the city played a central logistical role in human trafficking enslaved Africans to the New World while ensuring that the profits stayed in Europe. It as close to Africa as any part of Europe, but it is more a fortress than an open door. Rieke has decided to sail solo across the eastern Atlantic to Ascension Island, a volcanic atoll geo-engineered by Charles Darwin and Kew Gardens (of London) into a designed botanical paradise.
These details about place are extraordinarily important for enjoying the film, because Styx is nearly silent, particularly in its first half (there are three bursts of dialogue in the first 45 minutes of the film, with only ambient noise otherwise); Darwin, Londoners planting trees, an island named by a Portuguese would-be conquistador and a German leaving from Gibraltar: these are the key signifiers of Styx and they each emphasize notions of coloniality and evolution, about the legacies of the former and the potential impossibility of a social version of the latter. The metaphors are there and plain to see, but co-writer/director Wolfgang Fischer makes the audience do all the work of connecting the metaphors, to the film’s immense benefit. A heavy-handed approach would have sounded shrill and has already been done, anyhow (see, for instance, Le Havre).
Rieke never reaches Ascension Island. In the calm morning after a massive ocean storm, she awakes to find her yacht bobbing placidly only a hundred meters or so from an overloaded, foundering trawler filled with West African refugees. She reports the wrecked ship to the authorities and waits a safe distance away—her little vessel would be quickly sunk if she tried a more direct intervention—for help to come. But help is quite reluctant about arriving. Eventually, a few of the refugees attempt to swim to her and one, a young boy of about 12, named Kingsley (Gedion Odour Wekesa), succeeds. Together, Rieke and Kingsley wait for the Coast Guard and battle with each other over whether they need to do more.
Styx is a slow-burn thriller and everything hinges on the viewer grasping the connection between sailing, rules made by white people to regulate black people and Darwinian theorizing. To any viewer who remains alert and engaged, the film ends with a devastating and quite beautiful gut punch that coalesces everything together, but not everyone can stay alert after 45 silent minutes of waves lapping the sides of a yacht.