In Class with Hancock

By Biko Agozino
August 28, 2008

HancockI 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.

10 thoughts on “In Class with Hancock”

  1. Mr. Agozino I totally agree with you! The depiction of Black men in the superhero and video game world is appalling and it continues to get worse. We are almost always depicted as hyper aggressive and constantly swearing. Hancock reinforced the stereotypes of black men, yes superman and batman may have had their rough periods, but unemployment, swearing and drunkeness is NEVER associated with these heroes. Significant strides have been made with representation of black superheroes,….after all Marvel’s Storm (Ororo Munroe) and the Black Panther are the most famous ad popular black superheroes…but they are not enough compared the the Lily white superhero teams found throughout the Marvel and Dc universe. We must fight these inaccurate depictions of black men and women and this may only be corrected if more black writers and artists enter the mainstream comic/movie world.

  2. Call me crazy, but I always thought that the depiction of superheroes was just that. A young White kid watching Batman might think that it’s alright be a vigilant and take the law into his own hands. We should remove everything associated with Batman huh? Parents play the most crucial role in a child’s development. It’s good that Mr.Agozino discussed the movie with his children. However, I doubt that based on Hancock would they subscribe to the lifestyle of Hancock in any way. Did Hancock do anything for the greater good? By the way, if people didn’t pay to see movies like Hancock, then movies like Hancock wouldn’t be made. It seems to me that Hollywood and Will Smith (as usual) provided what most movie goers wanted to see.

  3. I just saw the movie last night and have to agree with you. It´s sad to see that in this day and age they felt compelled to add the typical stereotypical crap to Hancocks character.What´s worse, some people do actualy belive it.

  4. Guys ,there are too many important issues in your country to be concerned about, as opposed to being obsessed by pointless movies written by pimple face Hollywood junkie kids, with too much time on their hands. Let’s hear about something meaningful about your own country, along with your plans to make it a better place, and save the juvenile discussions for your face-book , yahoo messenger accounts, and T or B mobile texting escapades.

  5. Neal said:

    Guys ,there are too many important issues in your country to be concerned about, as opposed to being obsessed by pointless movies written by pimple face Hollywood junkie kids, with too much time on their hands. Let’s hear about something meaningful about your own country, along with your plans to make it a better place, and save the juvenile discussions for your face-book , yahoo messenger accounts, and T or B mobile texting escapades.

    Sure, you are just airing your views as usual, but why are you being so arrogant here? The article is on the blog for comments. If you feel this topic is of no importance to you, then you could simply keep out of it. You really do not have to be in every discussion on every thread.

    I think it is good that those who can pick up how people are being badly conditioned by movies, and the media in general, share their insights that could help alert others who may not have been aware.

  6. I stand corrected, and am always willing to accept a useful reprimand by a good soul in Heru. I really was not aware that this was what the commentators in question were actually doing, and had no problems with the author of the article as such.
    Call me cynical at times, but I do not give too much credence to this overwhelming power and influence that some believe Hollywood and many other media agents on shaping behaviors. In capitalist America, the movie industry is about making money. Today Will Smith is in the 20 million per movie club, as the highest paid actor in the country and would not rock too many boats like many others in his position.
    World renowned CUNY Black Studies Chairman, Professor Leonard Jefferies attempted to start a sensible debate on negative portrayal of African people in the movies some years ago by bias movie conglomerate, and was publicly castrated and lost every semblance of power he had. Noted Producer Spike Lee, tried to start a public fight with Clint Eastwood because of his historical omissions on screen of black actors in Flags of Our Fathers or Letters from Iwo Jima, and was told to “shut his face.”
    The way you create change is to use your networking influence and money to develop your own, and as consumers spend a bit less on the tasteless movies that do us no honor, but that’s a ‘horse of a different color,’ and totally unrelated issue.

  7. I have too say that you simply don’t understand the ‘usual’ or ‘white’ superheroes and how they were made…

    The originals horrified US so much that they were BANNED!!!

    The re-writes of superman and batman were allowed only because they became the good role models…compared to what they were before. Those altered superheroes over the years become what they are now and they can’t be changed without fans screaming bloody murder.

    Now comics and cartoons aren’t banned anymore so new superheroes sometimes come out as thugs at the beginning(see the batman beyond cartoon: basically poor jobless white thug kid becomes new batman…)

    Same with Hancock, start as some loser and show a positive message that anyone can change…that seems to be a theme in recent superhero movies and most are about white superheros…

    Personally I really didn’t care that he was black(why does this matter? I am from Russia so I have known a lot of drunks…and a lot of jobless people… is that really a black man stereotype? I thought it was all poor people stereotype… still I really never see race as an issue.) and didn’t think much about any hidden meanings in it. If I really start analyzing the characters then: the consultant came off as a complete idiot and his wife came off as the b$tch… So what? it made the movie interesting… you might even add that even though the black hero starts as some loser in the beginning of the movie, he is still a better person than EVERYONE else at all points in the movie…

    I think they went overboard on the stereotypes so everyone would realize that he is NOT a role model at the start… not to make those stereotypes look cool…

  8. Although this issue seems trivial as described by certain bloggers on this post,it is extremely important. This type of movie and media representation have serious long term repercussions on cultural thinking.I would like to think that Hollywood inadvertently produces these culturally damaging productions and that there is no sinister plot to perpetuate cultural and ethnic bias. But after reading some of the comments and analysis of this movie, I am beginning to question my own beliefs.I am going to put this matter to rest. I am going to view the movie. I will be the judge!

  9. I have to say, as a Media Student for the past 5 years i have been studying stereotypes in great depth, racial stereotypes in particular, and i actually didn’t feel that Hancock drew on stereotypical representations of Black people. Hancock is not the first superhero character in the media to be black. Superheroes like X-Men’s Storm, and The Teen Titans Cyborg avoided patronisising sterotypes which were unfortunately commonplace with some of the first coloured superheroes like The Falcon and Luke Cage inparticular. I think blaxploitation films like Shaft etc are absolutely absurd and really perpetuate wrong and misguided representations of black people. However ive read the comments listed above on Hancock and I think what needs to be considered is that Will Smith has become somewhat of an institution himself. He is a hugely successful star and producers are literally lining up to have him star in one of their films, and this may be the the primary reason why hes the star- and not because of his skin colour. At the beginning of the film when Hancock is lying on the pavement he is viewed as a tramp and perhaps his whole mannerisms at this point may be seen to be presenting a harmful view of black people however by the end of the film he is a really decenr guy! I think the contrast in his character is more for the sake of character development…. Just my view anyway. I think its great however that films like Hancock can raise so much debate about important issues, i just feel that perhaps too much is being read into the whole racial issue.

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