Bright tries, and fails, to address the fractured relationship between minorities and police. Given the sudden and saddening news of Erica Garner’s death, the violent toll being black in America takes on the body is once again pushed to the forefront of our minds. The 27 year -old became an activist after her father Eric was murdered by an NYPD officer’s illegal chokehold. Garner’s death was caught on camera, yet his killer walks free. His name is one of the thousands that continue to echo at the core of the Black Lives Matter movement. With stories like these playing out on our news feeds over and over again, it’s easy to see how cinema might seek to bring reprieve from the horrors of reality. However, the analogous post-racial mess of Bright is not quite what audiences need to see.
It’s uncommon to see black characters in these types of films; the fantasy genre is notorious for excluding us. Fans of the genre would be hard pressed to name a single black character in the expansive Lord of The Rings trilogy. When black characters do make their way into these stories, they usually have little to no pull on the narrative. They exist simply to help flesh out the stories of the more important white characters. Consider Missandei in Games Of Thrones. She is one of the two black characters the fantasy juggernaut has to offer, yet she is flat– lacking in personality, with little to no backstory and no character development whatsoever. All we really know about her is that she has pledged her life to serving Danearys Targareyn, who just happens to be the physical manifestation of white feminism. And that she falls for Grey Worm, the only other black character on the show, who happens to be a recently emancipated slave.
There is a strong need for diversity in fantasy films. It’s a shame that Bright is so jarring and ill-conceived. Will Smith and Joel Edgerton star as two unlikely partners in the Bad Boyz meets Harry Potter-esque police comedy-drama. It should be exciting to see Smith play Ward, a gruff cop turned wizard, who is as badass with a gun as he is with a magic wand. It’s a shame that it doesn’t make sense for the character to be black. The film takes place in an alternate present-day reality where humans exist in saccharine harmony, bonded over their hatred of orcs, and their inferiority to elves. Orcs have now replaced the black community at the bottom of the societal hierarchy, while elves living luxuriously in their sector of the city, seem to have squeezed out the white community as the “1%”. Portrayed by a black actor, Ward is less a well-rounded character whose development plays out throughout the course of the narrative and more a pawn through which the narrative can stress the color blindness of the society it’s centered on.
Realistically speaking, a dystopian future would look quite different for black and white people in much the same way that the present does. Throwing in non-human races to dull those differences seems like a bitter cop-out (no pun intended). It would have been a breath of fresh air to see a cinematic piece tackle how race would function in the future head on, because truthfully we know for a fact that when shit hits the fan the issue of race doesn’t just disappear. Take the jaw dropping phenomenon of white “vigilantes” murdering black people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina for example. As grim as it sounds even during times of duress humanity’s first instinct isn’t to band together across racial lines in real life. Why is film’s approach to this concept so limp and clueless? When did elves, orcs, and fairies appear? Why are the orcs hated more than black people? How did the elves squeeze out white people at the top of the hierarchy? How did the centuries of systemic racial oppression become dismantled overnight in favor of human unity against other races? Bright could have easily addressed all of these questions.
Instead the film goes out of it’s way to make Ward as “black” as possible, while simultaneously showing him mingling unabashed with the white people in his life. Ward’s relationship with the white people around him seems to function as a stand-in for the state of race relations as a whole in this new reality. The chemistry-less opening scenes with Ward and his wife are borderline cringe-worthy. Smith delivers an animated spiel about his cousin Day-Day’s previous encounter with a fairy. His swag and slang are clearly meant to be an endearing foil to his deliberately white wife, but her rigid smile and glass-eyed stare belie the cultural disconnect the film is trying hard to erase.
The decision to make Smith’s wife white is intended to solidify the idea that things like love and circumstance can overcome racial barriers. It’s as if Bright’s creators are exclaiming: See? He’s married to a white woman and they have a beautiful, visibly biracial child. If interracial love is a thing here how can racism still exist? Unfortunately, only actively working to dismantle a system that thrives on racial oppression can destroy racial barriers. Since the audience has been given no evidence to suggest any such work has actively been done, this casting choice seems like just another cheap ploy, reminiscent of other films where interracial love has been sprinkled in with a startling lack of sincerity.
Take 2002’s Monster Ball, which earned Halle Berry a history-making Oscar. The film revolves around Berry’s character, who is one half of an interracial couple, hauntingly connected to each other by the fact that her police officer lover orchestrated the execution of her deceased husband. Although the performances are beautifully executed, the film seems shockingly lacking in self awareness. It is inherently about race relations, but the film opts for a colorblind loneliness narrative that supersedes racial barriers.
On top of the disingenuous interracial relationship, Smith’s character is also treated as an equal among his police officer peers. This seems unlikely given he’s working for an institution that thrives on murdering people who look like him. Real life black police officers sometimes find themselves at the mercy of anti-black police brutality. A more nuanced relationship between Smith and the rest of the force would have been easier to believe.
These nuances are passed on to Joel Edgerton’s character instead. Edgerton, as Jakoby, watches other orcs get brutally beaten by police and can’t speak out on it for fear of losing his job or facing backlash from his human peers. He expresses that he’s always wanted to be a cop/to be included in the inner circle of humans who refuse to see past his orcness no matter how much he might attempt to assimilate. Essentially Edgerton is playing the Will Smith role in this film: a minority who has been offered equality but struggles to find equity. He has been integrated into a burning house and wants nothing more than to prove himself. These are things Smith’s character should also struggle with as a black man.
This deliberately carved out “racism is dead” message might be a little easier to swallow if the analogy between orcs/black people and the cops wasn’t so sloppily and brazenly made. It’s clear that orcs are meant to represent real-life black people. They’re shown dressed in jerseys, fitteds, and chains and populate the hood. Jakoby watching helplessly as other members of his race are subjected to beatings from his human co-workers is hauntingly reminiscent of the catalysts that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement to begin with. Ward, whom the audience is supposed to see as a police officer and not a black man, also mocks the movement early on in the film. He yells “Fairy lives don’t matter today” as he swats a neighborhood pest to death. The unfunny joke is trivializing of the deaths of Eric Garner, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Erica Garner and the countless black people who lost their lives because real life police officers did not think blacks lives mattered that day. It’s an especially callous line when spoken by a black man.
Characters in films that are inherently about race should be having frank, direct conversations about race. Bright and films like it can benefit from small tweaks that would make the interactions between characters more palatable. Do not attempt to leave race as the elephant in the room. Either Ward should be experiencing some of the same things that Jakoby does in his interactions with white people or there should be an explanation as to why he is suddenly above being discriminated against. It also makes no sense for Ward, a black man, who is hyper-aware of what it means to be a minority, to treat Jakoby the exact same way the other police officers treat him. If anything their statuses as minorities should have made them band together. Give Ward a black wife and child. Let them have a conversation as a family about what it means to be black in this new world. The fantasy genre is about escapism to a certain extent, but some facets of reality cannot be escaped and should be addressed. Otherwise the narrative comes across as toothless; too afraid to address the reality minorities face everyday.
“Color-blind” narratives do nothing to combat racism. White people should be able to acknowledge that blackness exists and makes us different culturally and otherwise, but that we’re no less worthy of equity for our differences. Bright‘s willful obtuseness towards race undermines the often traumatic and tragic experiences of being black in this county, particularly as it relates to police. We should never be afraid to outright have a conversation in film or real life. That’s the only way we’re going to change the world.