The Pursuit of Crappyness

| 11 Nov 2014 | 02:02

    Will Smith has been a presumptive nominee for President of Hollywood at least since Independence Day put him on the A-list in 1996 with its $306 million box-office take. Since then, as the various precincts Men in Black (1997), Wild Wild West (1999) and Men in Black II (2002), reported a combined gross of $550 million, Smith has presided over Hollywood’s July 4th-weekend movie openings. The implications of this can’t be ignored: Movie star Smith is also a political figure. His big screen exploits reflect the way we think about race, masculinity, humor, violence and fantasy.

    No longer a mere lawn jockey—a figure symbolizing the Hollywood plantation—Smith can now claim cultural authority even over the equally slick George Clooney (who only gets authority from tabloid speculation). Without showing any social consciousness at all—instead, turning out action sci-fi like Men in Black and I Am Legend that resist political metaphor—Smith has amassed a box-office tally that suggests an approval rating beyond even Sidney Poitier’s peak in 1968—the year Smith was born into a middle-class black family in Philadelphia.

    Smith finally accepts the superhero nomination in Hancock, this year’s July 4th plebiscite. His pop-culture ascension syncs with Barack Obama’s superhero feat as the first black male to become a major party presidential candidate. Both these events can be described as Triumphs of the Will, decades-late endorsement of African-American aspiration. If one thing is certain in this life, it’s that no modest person becomes a movie star or a politician. Smith and Obama, first rate egotists, share a smooth, casual approach to popularity. Both accept racial identification but not in any polarizing way; their black, white and in-between appeal has a beige complexion. Asserting or rescinding racial identity at will, Smith has mastered the game that Obama is just learning.

    This is the obnoxious lesson of Hancock, where Smith plays a combination black layabout, sheriff, victim and badass. All sides of the coin are not too many for a manipulative film actor who has never offered more to the public than he can consciously calculate as being personally beneficial. On one level Hancock’s pandering is shockingly brazen: Named after a Declaration of Independence signatory, Los Angeles crime-fighter John Hancock also embodies stereotypes of the black genius (flying through the air like Michael Jordan slam-dunking) and of the ghetto lout (he creates potholes whether landing or taking off). Hancock cusses out women (“I been drinkin’, bitch!” “I’ll break my foot off in your ass, lady!”), and yet he’s nice to kids and is ready to augment the criminal justice system when needed (“Good job!” he commends ineffectual police.)

    It’s unclear whether Hancock is a comedy, drama or satire; crime movie, character study or sci-fi fantasy. It’s all those—and nothing—because Smith smashes genres together, catering to the odious conventions of summer movies. He’s as desperate as an unscrupulous pol. This taints the eminence he has achieved since crossing over from rap star to TV star to motion-picture superstar. Smith can’t escape the resonance of his singular black achievement, and this spectacle is an indubitable reflection of Obama’s current ascension. It’s what makes Smith’s frivolity worth studying.

    Smith’s middle-class rearing at Philadelphia’s Overbrook High School and the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, a college-preparatory public school, was a parallel path to Obama’s Ivy League background at Columbia University and Harvard Law School. (Smith had no interest in higher education.) Pursuing advancement through what used to be called assimilation was characteristic of the choices available to young black men of Smith and Obama’s generation who eschewed Tupac-style thuggery. But success was not waiting, inevitably, at the end of their Horatio Alger sojourns. Each man benefited from the changes (post–civil rights era) in the social perception of black males’ potential.

    There’s only a seven-year difference in Smith and Obama’s ages. So it is not surprising that each man’s ambition—which is inseparable from his hope—evidences the fervor of the progressive era in which they were raised. That fervor permeated the beliefs of assorted civilians, politicians, artists and consumers: from Marvin Gaye to Julian Bond, Toni Morrison to Angela Davis, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to August Wilson. And this faith was encouraged—rewarded—through the breakthroughs of other credible mid-20th- century black public figures. Role models like Poitier and Thurgood Marshall provided examples of how black folks persevere in America. Their biographical struggles amounted to a road map—a Stations of the Cross through Jim Crow, Prejudice, Economic Disadvantage, Reverse Affirmative Action, Militant Dissent—eventually arriving at Smith and Obama’s undeniable pinnacles of politesse.

    Hancock’s superhero image presents a black do-gooder who charms the mainstream through a guise of “difference” that is, in fact, familiar and reassuring. “I don’t know who I am,” Hancock confesses when his background is questioned by advertising executive Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), his wife Mary (Charlize Theron) and child. Yet this story takes place in a neverland where superheroes are taken for granted—even scoffed at when Hancock displays bad manners. The film’s plot brings the reprobate in line: curing his alcoholism and even fitting him in a sleek costume patterned after the figure of a soaring black eagle. (“A uniform represents purpose,” Bateman advises.)

    Frankly, this is the most confused super-hero characterization since M. Night Shyamalan’s ludicrous Unbreakable. Hancock’s “heroism,” that estimate of courage and sacrifice routinely debased by the news media, is no longer the whim of segregated black sci-fi. It derives from the seldom-reported fact of black public service, enhanced by the popular whimsy of sci-fi, comic books and Smith’s matinee-idol infectiousness. (This super black ideal is also what pundits were suggesting when comparing the Obama phenomenon to the Beatles during the spring primaries.)

    It matters that Smith and Obama—the most popular Anglo surname and an immediately, recognizably exotic surname—both are seen as inoffensive and associated with non-threatening ideology. It is the basis of the public confidence each man seeks. Smith’s distance from gangster rap (remember the disses he received as the first Grammy-winning—i.e. “safe”—rap artist?) parallels Obama’s distance from radical, upstart black nationalism, liberation theology and prophetic Christianity. The quasi-mystical Hancock embodies all these paradoxes and safeguards. The film keeps Hancock’s back story off screen for as long as possible (like some pesky FBI clearance); and when it’s finally revealed, the imputation of America’s racist history (evoking the scars of slavery and involving Hancock’s past brutalization by racist Southerners) is recalled with bewildering nonchalance. Despite Smith and Obama’s casual, presidential demeanor, the ease with which they carry their opportunity and success reflects a willed triumph over adversity—a whispered pact to leave the audience’s enthusiasm undisturbed. This electability is not so different from box-office charisma. They are stars who charm rather than challenge; and their public image is interchangeable.

    Instead of offering revolutionary political suggestions, Smith, like Obama, reluctantly opposes ethnic stereotypes. Smith’s most interesting film role, as the schizoid gay sociopath in Six Degrees of Separation (1992), came at the wrong end of his career—it was before movie audiences had a stake in his persona and before Smith became so protective of his image. Hancock, first seen sleeping off a bender on a sidewalk bench, looks as slouchy as The Big Lebowski’s The Dude—indolence that African-American men cannot ordinarily afford. But true to box-office, primary-season formula, the drunkard gets reformed. Hancock submits to Ray’s image makeover, a matter-of-fact acquiescence to media manipulation—Smith’s stock in trade, just as the media often seemed to be the primary constituency that Obama reacts to.

    Like all Will Smith blockbusters, Hancock is primarily about the management of African-American male persona. Even during Hancock’s jail stint (a publicity stunt to gain popular sympathy), the Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan screenplay doesn’t risk empathy with society’s underclass and miscreants. Smith is avoiding the great insight of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrence’s superb prison film Life and Ving Rhames’ outrageous, hilarious prison characterizations in both Undeclared and I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry. Smith plays it straight and safe as Obama’s haircut. And underneath the knit cap with eagle appliquÈ, Hancock is similarly shorn. (Strange that he doesn’t wear dreadlocks, that amusing signifier of black congeniality that reassuringly harkens back to the college years’ weed-seller and reggae fan at variance with that angry afro’d guy in the black students’ union.)

    Hancock’s changeable traits imply that racial signifiers have been shifting in recent decades, thanks largely to Smith’s first career achievement: hip-hop. There’s been a change in the pop perception of black stereotypes that creates rapport for even the meanest black social conditions. Smith’s Hancock (like his federal agent in Enemy of the State and Men in Black, as well as his Savior of Mankind in I Am Legend) puts an appealing face on rappers’ allegiance to capitalism and their ubiquitous commercial exploitation. Through hip-hop, more Americans come to identify with black public figures than ever before: It’s the common ground Bill Cosby shares with Snoop Dogg, and Hancock, the erratically hip, cynical/sentimental superhero, is its ultimate figurehead—a flip-flopping demagogue.

    Until now, Will Smith’s celebrity has lacked an identifying slogan. Hancock gives him “Call me an asshole again!” It’s a superhero lowering himself to thin-skinned mortal weakness, a threat that is also a promise of audience-pleasing violence. (Hancock’s vow to stick a man’s head up another man’s ass becomes the film’s CGI climax.) The on-screen violence and rancor contradicts Smith’s squeaky-clean rap recordings. This is also political. In interviews, Smith’s assurance to his fans that he will deliver “better than before” means that he will capitalize on the Blaxploitation movie aesthetic of vengeful violence. But whereas Blaxploitation movies expressed the frustrations of civil-rights-era militancy, Smith uses violence as a box office champ’s prerogative. Like Hancock producer Michael Mann, Smith lowers the audience’s sensibility. Peter Berg, who made The Kingdom, the worst-directed film of 2007, now bids for the perennial title with a shaky-cam style that blurs action but highlights jolts and shocks. Berg’s Michael Mannerisms (jumping to Mary screaming each time Hancock is stabbed or bludgeoned) prove he is an idiot-disciple.

    That Will Smith could settle for such dreck-as-entertainment proves he is no better than a Hollywood hack—an empowered black man who behaves no differently than an unprincipled white despot. And here is where Hancock’s resemblance to the Obama campaign becomes more than a warning. It’s a failed opportunity—what Adam Clayton Powell, Sidney Poitier, Fannie Lou Hamer and Harry Belafonte would understandably call a “heartbreak.