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 Hollywoods July 4th-weekend movie openings. The implications of this cant 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 jockeya figure symbolizing the Hollywood plantationSmith 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 allinstead, turning out action sci-fi like Men in Black and I Am Legend that resist political metaphorSmith has amassed a box-office tally that suggests an approval rating beyond even Sidney Poitiers peak in 1968the year Smith was born into a middle-class black family in Philadelphia.
Smith finally accepts the superhero nomination in Hancock, this years July 4th plebiscite. His pop-culture ascension syncs with Barack Obamas 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, its 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 Hancocks 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! Ill break my foot off in your ass, lady!), and yet hes nice to kids and is ready to augment the criminal justice system when needed (Good job! he commends ineffectual police.)
Its unclear whether Hancock is a comedy, drama or satire; crime movie, character study or sci-fi fantasy. Its all thoseand nothingbecause Smith smashes genres together, catering to the odious conventions of summer movies. Hes 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 cant escape the resonance of his singular black achievement, and this spectacle is an indubitable reflection of Obamas current ascension. Its what makes Smiths frivolity worth studying.
Smiths middle-class rearing at Philadelphias Overbrook High School and the Julia Reynolds Masterman Laboratory and Demonstration School, a college-preparatory public school, was a parallel path to Obamas 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 Obamas 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.
Theres only a seven-year difference in Smith and Obamas ages. So it is not surprising that each mans ambitionwhich is inseparable from his hopeevidences 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 encouragedrewardedthrough 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 mapa Stations of the Cross through Jim Crow, Prejudice, Economic Disadvantage, Reverse Affirmative Action, Militant Dissenteventually arriving at Smith and Obamas undeniable pinnacles of politesse.
Hancocks superhero image presents a black do-gooder who charms the mainstream through a guise of difference that is, in fact, familiar and reassuring. I dont 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 grantedeven scoffed at when Hancock displays bad manners. The films 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 Shyamalans ludicrous Unbreakable. Hancocks 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 Smiths 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 Obamathe most popular Anglo surname and an immediately, recognizably exotic surnameboth are seen as inoffensive and associated with non-threatening ideology. It is the basis of the public confidence each man seeks. Smiths distance from gangster rap (remember the disses he received as the first Grammy-winningi.e. saferap artist?) parallels Obamas distance from radical, upstart black nationalism, liberation theology and prophetic Christianity. The quasi-mystical Hancock embodies all these paradoxes and safeguards. The film keeps Hancocks back story off screen for as long as possible (like some pesky FBI clearance); and when its finally revealed, the imputation of Americas racist history (evoking the scars of slavery and involving Hancocks past brutalization by racist Southerners) is recalled with bewildering nonchalance. Despite Smith and Obamas casual, presidential demeanor, the ease with which they carry their opportunity and success reflects a willed triumph over adversitya whispered pact to leave the audiences 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. Smiths most interesting film role, as the schizoid gay sociopath in Six Degrees of Separation (1992), came at the wrong end of his careerit 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 Lebowskis The Dudeindolence that African-American men cannot ordinarily afford. But true to box-office, primary-season formula, the drunkard gets reformed. Hancock submits to Rays image makeover, a matter-of-fact acquiescence to media manipulationSmiths 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 Hancocks jail stint (a publicity stunt to gain popular sympathy), the Vy Vincent Ngo and Vince Gilligan screenplay doesnt risk empathy with societys underclass and miscreants. Smith is avoiding the great insight of Eddie Murphy and Martin Lawrences 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 Obamas haircut. And underneath the knit cap with eagle appliquÈ, Hancock is similarly shorn. (Strange that he doesnt 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 afrod guy in the black students union.)
Hancocks changeable traits imply that racial signifiers have been shifting in recent decades, thanks largely to Smiths first career achievement: hip-hop. Theres been a change in the pop perception of black stereotypes that creates rapport for even the meanest black social conditions. Smiths 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: Its the common ground Bill Cosby shares with Snoop Dogg, and Hancock, the erratically hip, cynical/sentimental superhero, is its ultimate figureheada flip-flopping demagogue.
Until now, Will Smiths celebrity has lacked an identifying slogan. Hancock gives him Call me an asshole again! Its a superhero lowering himself to thin-skinned mortal weakness, a threat that is also a promise of audience-pleasing violence. (Hancocks vow to stick a mans head up another mans ass becomes the films CGI climax.) The on-screen violence and rancor contradicts Smiths squeaky-clean rap recordings. This is also political. In interviews, Smiths 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 champs prerogative. Like Hancock producer Michael Mann, Smith lowers the audiences 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. Bergs 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 hackan empowered black man who behaves no differently than an unprincipled white despot. And here is where Hancocks resemblance to the Obama campaign becomes more than a warning. Its a failed opportunitywhat Adam Clayton Powell, Sidney Poitier, Fannie Lou Hamer and Harry Belafonte would understandably call a heartbreak.