My friends and I constantly talk about how we want a bunch of black movies across the spectrum, from romance to science fiction. White actors get all the fun and we get all the supporting (and usually dying) sidekicks.
Will Smith has been serving us all those movies we crave for years. He took a chance early in his career (that I doubt he’ll ever take again) with the critically acclaimed Six Degrees of Separation, and he’s been serving us romantic lead (Hitch), action superstar (Bad Boys), sci-fi hero (Independence Day), and serious and thoughtful drama protagonist (The Pursuit of Happyness) since then. He’s forced hard-core fanboys (read: white) to embrace a black man in the role of main character (I Am Legend and I, Robot) in stories where the source material specified a white protagonist.
But with his most recent outing in Netflix’s Bright, Smith may have missed an opportunity to usher in a larger Afrofuturist revolution in pop culture. Afrofuturism, a word coined by Mark Dery in the early ’90s, is a scientific and historical philosophy that creates and embraces a cultural aesthetic that combines historical fiction, science fiction, fantasy, Afrocentrism and magical realism to critique the present lives of black folk, examines the lives of black folk in the past and reimagines black folk in the future. Basically, it’s a way for black folk to get free. So far, Smith hasn’t given us that specific vision.
I don’t know if Smith knows what Afrofuturism is or that he’s even trying to make these types of movies, but he has been sending us signals with his role choices that imply he could be open to it. He tried, though. Y’all remember After Earth? The idea of a black super soldier taking his son on a futuristic journey of self-discovery is the type of Afrofuturist movie that could be an allegory for the relationship between black men and their sons. But from the direction to the screenplay, it didn’t work out, and he even said in an interview with Variety that that particular “failure” shook him. But with his star power and mind for science fiction narratives, he could really be telling these stories. He seems to have a mind for stories that are different, and maybe a little weird. And that’s what leads me to Bright.
Bright has more than a few problems. The plot is like any of your fave buddy-cop movies; it has echoes of Training Day, Bad Boys, Colors and even a little Lethal Weapon. It also reminded me and my partner of the unfortunately short-lived television show Alien Nation, which paired a human cop with an alien.
In my opinion, on its face, Bright is not a bad movie, even if it is written by a problematic figure like Max Landis. Clearly, Landis knows his buddy-cop movies from the familiar tropes he uses in Bright. But he’s not a futurist and definitely has no vision for who, where and how black folk will be in the future. And that’s sort of the point here.
For Smith to succeed at making Afrofuturist movies, he needs to start working with some black writers and directors who understand the concepts to get this Afrofuturist revolution off the ground. For example, there is no way that he should have said, “Fairy lives don’t matter.” It’s cheap and mocks the Black Lives Matter movement. He’s Will Smith; doesn’t he have enough Hollywood social capital to have nixed that line?
Without some real deep world building (which this movie had little of), the audience is left to wonder how it is that Orcs are to be read as the “niggas” in the film versus Smith as the “upstanding black guy.” Even though the Elf detective Kandomere is portrayed by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez, all the Elves are supposed to be read as white 1 percenters. Even the “actual” white folks in this alternative present still wallow in entitled whiteness. Your favorite rapper wasn’t excited about this attempt at a racial allegory, either. This is regressive racial misunderstanding at its worst and a pandering to our sentimental relationship to iconic buddy-cop movies (both the good and the bad).
I know that Smith didn’t write this movie; nor did he direct it. But when he read the script, why he didn’t say, “Hmmm ... there’s some problems here”? The metaphors about race and racism land flat, and I’m no prude when it comes to dystopia, but if we’re going to go there, let’s do it full force. The best semirecent mainstream example of a dystopian landscape involving a racial allegory has got to be District 9, set in South Africa. In it, the racial implications of what it means to be “other” are not shied away from.
Afrofuturism is not for the faint of heart. It can help us discuss racism and its impact on the contemporary and future black body and give us language to talk about the kind of racial schadenfreude that can exist between those who have historically been on the bottom of the racial scale and those who are on the bottom now. Consider the shift of hatred from blacks to Middle Eastern Muslims after 9/11, or think about mass shootings and how we black folk cross our collective fingers, hoping that the individual wielding the gun ain’t “one of us.”
The exploration of race in Bright is lacking because there was no one who had a competent racial lens. In the midst of watching the movie, I wondered, where was Smith’s voice in all of this? He clearly likes sci-fi. He clearly wants to create new and exciting work. Even in his commercial failures, like After Earth (which I hated) and Hancock (which I actually loved—don’t judge me), he wants to be a part of projects that show black people in different spaces and times and worlds.
Releasing Bright in a Black Panther moment is like, “Bruh, you’re giving us this?” The reason black people are planning to keep Marvel’s Black Panther in the theaters for at least six months when it drops in February is that it’s a movie that confidently boasts a black director, black actors and a black screenwriter who seem to grasp the concepts of Afrofuturism even if that wasn’t their intent.
Afrofuturism is ripe for a revolution. I am not exaggerating when I say that black folks’ survival in the United States is an Afrofuturist story in itself. I just want Smith to recognize that he’s started the work of bringing this revolution to the mainstream, and because of that, I want him to move forward with black writers, directors and actors who employ an Afrofuturist lens. He’s Will Smith; he’s got a long and successful track record in Hollywood. And we were expecting more. Do better.