By Walidah Imarisha
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
How do you make a movie that relies entirely on America’s sordid racial history, without ever talking about race? Ask the makers of Hancock, they seem to have it down pat.
John Hancock [Will Smith] is a superhero that protects Los Angeles, begrudgingly. Drunk, foul mouthed, bedraggled, sexist, homophobic and ethnically insensitive, he’s about as far from a Superman as you’re ever going to get. But we find out that all Hancock needs is a little TLC.
A blow to the head 80 years ago erased his memory, so he lives in isolation from society, saving it without being of it. But all that changes when he meets Ray Embrey [Jason Bateman], a public relations man down on his luck who decides to help Hancock clean up his image. Oh, and we find out that Bateman’s domestic dream of a wife Mary [Charlize Theron] is really a superhero too, and did I mention that she was married to Will Smith for 3,000 years?
Let the games begin.
This is a movie about a black superhero that has nothing to do with a black superhero. Though Will Smith is obviously black, the film studiously avoids any exploration of what that means. Hancock has no cultural context. Throughout the film, he has no connection to a community, to a family, to a culture, to an identity, to anyone who looks like him. He is completely alone. A metaphor for the state of Black America? Try it on.
That is not to say that there aren’t other people of color, and even other black folks in the film. They’re all over. They’re the Indian store clerk, the Asian gangsters with automatic weapons, the black and Latino men who populate the jail Hancock goes to (oh yes, they send him to the slammer) – in fact, there is not a single black man in the film, other than Hancock, who is not shown as a dangerous criminal (and he’s kinda iffy). With that kind of PR, we can see why Hancock ain’t trying to claim his people too quick.
As much as this movie and Hancock lack a cultural connection, it is not a role created for a white hero. This film would never have been read the same way, and the way I think the creators intended, if it had been Brad Pitt in that role. The entire film relies on racialization of our unconscious minds to fill in the gaps of discussion, without anyone saying “race” or “black.”
We would know Hancock is a black superhero even if we never saw his face. The music in the film is almost nothing but hip hop, some dub reggae. The opening song played the first time we do see Hancock? Ludacris’ “Move Bitch (Get Out the Way).” Only a black superhero could have been portrayed as the antithesis of a hero, as someone who has to be scolded by the white PR guy about his behavior, who gets cleaned up like a child to be presentable to the larger society. Would they have punked Batman like that? The Hulk? C’mon now!
This film plays with a racially explosive history like a stick of dynamite, without every acknowledging the potentially destructive force. The relationship between Hancock and Mary is charged throughout the film with sexual tension. We find out that they were in fact made for each other, a race of ancient superbeings, that died out, except for the two of them. And when they’re in each other’s proximity, they lose their special powers, become mortals. Mary runs her hands over the scars on Hancock’s, otherwise impervious body, “Sumeria 4 BC. They came after you with swords…” 1850, he supposedly pulled her out of a fire set by a mob. And lastly, 80 years before he was attacked and his head split open, causing his amnesia. “They wouldn’t let me ride in the ambulance with you,” she says tearfully.
1850? 80 years ago, so the 1920s? Theron with her blonde hair and blue eyes, and Will Smith? The “they” is left ambiguous, and I suppose some people could have read it that the mobs attacked because they were superheroes. But if we think of 1850, when slavery was still legal in this country, when black people had to prove they weren’t property, and where interracial marriage would still be illegal for decades, you get a much clearer vision of the racialized history this film is dancing around but never steps up to claim, perhaps afraid that a frank discussion of race and power would ruin a fun Saturday night out at the movies.
In the end, Hancock is an acceptable black hero because he accepts his appropriate role in society: alone, isolated, there to save white people (we never see him save a person of color in the movie, because, again, all he people of color we see are criminals), in a silly outfit, smiling and saying thank you to police officers, far away from the white woman.
The ultimate lesson to this movie? Same as it was in 1850 and 1920: Black men, stay as far away from white women as possible, if you want to live.