After months of hype and anticipation, Netflix has finally dropped Bright, the streaming platform’s first blockbuster. Starring Will Smith and lots of gunfire, the film has a lot going on. It’s a cop flick set in an alternate L.A. where several other subhuman species co-exist with humans. Smith plays Officer Ward, an LAPD policeman who is returning to work after being shot on the job. His partner, Officer Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), is an orc — a subhuman species that has been relegated to first class citizenship — and the first of his kind to join the police force. They are trying to get along and stop a magic wand from getting into the wrong hands. Like I said, it’s a lot. And the merging of science fiction with social hierarchy only contributes to the film’s excessiveness, and most of this falls on the shoulders of Smith’s character.
Obviously, Ward is Black. A string of one liners with mild-profanity are meant to verify his cultural authenticity. While trying to kill a pesky fairy, he quips “fae lives don’t matter today.” Meanwhile, Ward’s disdain for his rowdy, gangbanging (by his own observation) neighbors establish his morality. His girlfriend is white, and he has a perfect racially ambiguous daughter. He’s the “good” kind of Black, a position that allows him to enact dominance over one species (fae) while advocating for another (orcs). As such, Ward’s race is conveniently neutralized in moments where power comes into play. His status as someone struggling to stay in the middle class becomes more of an important identifier than his racial identity.
In Bright, systemic racism against people of color takes a backseat to the social structure of varying species, and racism itself is re-written onto these subspecies. Elves are a pasty white subspecies that essentially run the world and Beverly Hills. They are rich and lavish enough to fit right in in the capital of Panem. On the other end of the spectrum, orcs are typically found performing low-skill and low-wage labor in the less savory parts of town. They rock streetwear and love heavy metal in a weird mashup of hip-hop, cholo, and punk culture. Jakoby is the character that viewers are supposed to empathize with because of the constant discrimination and disenfranchisement he experiences as an orc. I certainly did. But I’m a girl that can do both, and I noticed that the racial politics of Smith’s characters and Bright L.A. are all over the place.
As the film’s protagonist and hero, Ward has to embody a myriad of stereotypes to save the world. He is the the magical negro. A homeless man calls him “blessed” towards the beginning of the film, and it’s later revealed that he’s a rare kind of human who can handle a magic wand without exploding. He has the kind of fighting and gun skills that would make Shaft himself nervous, and he spends most of the film using it to protect a specific elf girl who can also control the wand.
In an odd twist where Ward saving the day also helps Jakoby officially join an orc clan, Ward even assumes the role of the white savior, except he’s Black. I told you that it’s weird. The varying portrayals of Ward in the film don’t cancel each other out to create the perfect good guy. Instead, each trope sticks out like another sore thumb for viewers to process. Suddenly, the premise of magical beings battling it out with L.A.’s Latino community doesn’t seem so far-fetched.