By Biko Agozino
August 28, 2008
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.