Monday, July 21, 2008

Hancock Decoded


By Biko Agozino

I have just seen the box office hit movie, Hancock, with my two teenage sons and their 12 year old cousin. As usual, after seeing a movie with the kids, we engaged in debates about the representations and subtle messages in the movie. I asked the young men if they liked the film and they all agreed that it was a great film. I asked them what they liked about it and they said that Will Smith was the greatest superhero ever. Then they asked me if I liked the movie and I said no that I did not. Why not? They all asked in unison.

I asked the children to compare Will Smith’s character with other super heroes played by white actors. They said that all super heroes have their nemeses because people are suspicious of those who have superhuman powers. Many people dislike Superman and Batman and Spiderman especially when they are slow to beat the bad guys or when the bad guys impersonate them and make it look like the bad things were being done by the superheroes. Sometimes people dislike the superhero because they envy the superpower or because they fear that he may use the same power to defeat them if they did anything naughty by themselves. So they were not surprised that people were complaining about John Hancock in the movie, it comes with being a superhero.

I asked the young men if they knew of any superhero who was unemployed, or an alcoholic, or who slept rough on the streets, or used foul language, or tried to pinch the bum of women on the streets or called them bitches, or bullied children who were bullies, or had no girlfriend or family or went to prison just to learn how to say ‘good job’, or chased another man’s wife?

I told them that I suspected that Hollywood used these stereotypes to send the wrong messages to young black men and help to continue leading them astray. Some young black men may see the movie and believe that abusing large bottles of whiskey might give them superpowers. These are common stereotypes of the black man: unemployed, drunk addict, homeless, no family responsibility, cursing, ex-convict, childish, ignorant of his true identity and doing more harm than good.

Moreover, while he slept rough, it was a white boy who kicked him to wake him up by the side of the street to tell him that there were bad guys that he needed to fight and when he could not be bothered, the boy called him an asshole, an insult that almost everyone called him for his trouble of saving the world from dangerous criminals who were represented predominantly as foreigners or as black people while the criminal bosses were white men.

The young black men who saw the movie with me protested that Hancock gave up drinking in the movie. Yes, I agreed, but guess who made him give up drinking for a while? It was a white man who did so as if he had no mind of his own. Moreover, Hancock did not even know who he was, it was a white woman who defined him for himself the way white people like to be the ones defining black people’s identity. I Asked them if they have ever seen a superhero played by a white man who did not know who he was until a black woman revealed the true identity.

Why was Hancock persuaded to accept a prison term as the only way to win respect when it is easier to improve the image of anyone by sending him to the university? In the prison where black men were over-represented, Hancock had to prove his superpower status by pushing a man’s head up the ass of another man (a metaphor for male rape in prison), by dumbly saying ‘pass’ in the group therapy sessions, and by magically scoring baskets from incredible distance as if that was all black men could do in a world dominated by ideas of white supremacy.

Why was Hancock not given his own family or girlfriend in the movie instead of setting him up to appear as if he was after the white woman who was married to the white man who pretended to be his boss and who told him how to dress for work? He later claimed that the white woman kissed him after he had tucked her husband into bed as if he was the nanny or ‘manny’ but that was no kiss, it was a beating that he got from the white woman who simply told him that they were different because she was stronger, blah blah blah.

Finally, Hancock was persuaded to go to a different planet to avoid tempting the white woman who claimed to be his mystical wife as if getting rid of the black man was the only way to resolve the sexual desire of white women for the forbidden fruits of black masculinity. By some kind of coincidence, John Hancock was the name of one of the Founding Fathers of America who was a slave trader, tax dodger and smuggler.

Films like Hancock are rated PG with the expectation that parents would guide their children in reading the codes in the movies but not all parents have the time, skill or interest to do so adequately. As a result, schools may have to fill this void by having seminars and workshops in which popular films will be closely read and analysed by a students’ film club to guide students against the negative messages encoded in films. So PG films should also be rated SG for School Guidance.

Biko Agozino is a Professor of Sociology at the University of the West Indies, St. Augustine. His documentary film, CLR James: The Black Jacobins Sociology Series is being serialized by NCC Channels 4 and 11, Trinidad and Tobago.


Odozi Obodo said...

This review has received so many wonderful responses that I have decided to post it here with some few more comments of my own.

First, Will Smith remains a beloved brother and even if he had turned down this project, Hollywood could have found someone else to do the film because it would be a commercial success. In other words, Hollywood would make uplifting movies if they would sell well at the box office. It is not a conspiracy to make films like Hancock, it is commercial.

Secondly, it is not simply a race thing because what is damaging to black youth (alcoholism) would also be damaging to white youth (who appear to binge-drink more) especially given the ways that black popular culture becomes a cross-over to be consumed by global youth as a standard (music).

The white people in the movie do not represent all white people given that we know many white people who would be equally offended and who would support struggles for racial equality and social justice just like the little boy and his family who believed in Hancock. The film was not just racially stereotypical but also gendered and class-specific in ways that are damaging to a healthy society.

Someone reminds us that the Police Chief was a black man but he was reduced to carrying the wounded white female officer as if he was the Chief Nanny while there was no significant black female or black youth role in the movie.

One reader reminds us that it was a black man's head that Hancock stuck up the ass of a white man in that violent prison scene. It does not really matter whose head or whose ass, but it matters that such violence is being presented as a heroic act when we know that the over-representation of black men in prison means that such scenes could promote more prison violence at their expense. The over-representation of black people in the movie as criminals while the white criminals were the criminal master-minds is a reflection of racial profiling while the war on crime theme is misleading given that there are alternatives like peacemaking that could produce better results.

One or two readers actually doubted if I had a debate with my sons and nephew or if I just made it all up. This shows that many families do not engage in the parental guidance that film regulators expected with the PG rating. Hence, the community or the village should step in to fill the void with media literacy debates such as we are doing here.

Some readers see the movie as simply representing the reality that someone who is down and out could still rise to be an icon like many in our history. However, sending a crime fighter to prison rather than to the university is not sending the proper message to our young people and policy makers today. He came out from prison even more violent than when he went in and still ignorant of his true identity.

Finally, the majority of our young people are smart enough to read Hancock as a work of fiction and would not model their own lives after the bum counter-hero. This means that we should commend the youth, their peers, parents and teachers, the media and community leaders who have been helping to educate the next generation. Keep up the good work.

Eddy said...

I read this review late. I think your reference to white women's sexual desires toward black men is overgeneralized and even racist.

Odozi Obodo said...


Thanks for finding time on Christmas Day to comment on my blog although your comment does not seem to carry the usual good cheer associated with the festive day. To cheer you up, I decided to respond as soon as possible. You wrote: 'I think your reference to white women's sexual desires toward black men is overgeneralized and even racist.'

I wish to assure you that within the context of the movie, Hancock, such a statement is actually an understatement and it is indeed anti-racist rather than racist.

Since women are human beings and men are human beings, and since human beings desire each other as sexual partners whatever the color or race - sometimes against the law and often against prejudice - why would it seem an overgeneralization or even racist to say that white women desire black men?

One reason you suspected that was probably because the movie, Hancock, made you uncomfortable about the statement. Yet it is an understatement because white women desire other groups of human beings too and not only black men and they are not the only group of women who desire black men as bell hooks observed in her book on black masculinity, We Real Cool.

And yes, the white woman in question was actually married to the black man in the movie. The white man she was living with was not really her husband, she was more of a live-in nanny following the death of the little boy’s mother.

So the movie flew something under the watchful eyes of the audience by suggesting to them that the idea of a white woman married to a black man was taboo and was likely to lead to the death of both of them through degeneration and that the only solution was for the black man to move as far away from his own wife as possible if he knew what was good for him and the wife.

Colored people are the second largest minority in South Africa with 8.9% of the population; 2% of US population (about 6 million in 2006 census) identified themselves as multiracial; in Canada it is 1.5% of the population while England has 1.4% and up to 4% in Lambeth or 2% in Liverpool. In Brazil, 38.5% of the people identify themselves as ‘Pardo’ colored or mixed race in the 2000 census.

Although not all multiracial people are products of white women desiring black men, to frown at such a fact is what appears racist while asserting it is actually an understatement because they desire others too just like all human beings.

So Eddy, I think that it was the movie that may have offended you, not my commentary. The script writers could have given Hancock a black wife if they had problems with him having a white wife but sending him to another planet is a racist fantasy.

Thanks again for finding time to tell me how you feel about my comment. I hope that this comment helps to cheer you up.

Have a good one.

Anonymous said...

Talents alone cannot make a writer. There must be a man behind the book.