I finally got around to watching the hearty yet heartburn-inducing stew that is Bright (2017). I haven’t yet decided the exact proportions of its recipe, but it definitely relies on servings of a number of past films and trends, including the following:

  • Men in Black
  • District 9
  • Black/white buddy cop films, e.g. Die HardLethal Weapon
  • Lord of the Rings 
  • Fifth Element
  • Star Wars
  • Enemy Mine
  • 70s blaxploitation
  • 90s gangsta pictures (e.g. New Jack City)
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Waiting for the Wookie to roar as our heroes get their medals.

I don’t want to dig into exactly what comes from where, but Bright is definitely a pastiche of film predecessors. At its best, it points to racism as a cultural constant and corruption as inescapable. Even as our heroes get their medals, we should know the cultural schisms and greed in the hearts of men (and a few token women) persist…and will likely show up in the sequel, which I understand is already in the works.

At worst is the way the film takes on race, a sloppy mess of 90s gangsta-meets-#BlackLivesMatter. The police station scene goes out of its way to show that the black man is expected to be as racist as the white cops when it comes to species hatred, and mostly he is…sorta. Will Smith’s Daryl Ward is both insider and outsider, judged by others for maybe not being as good a cop as he should be? Margaret Cho’s token Asian American police sargeant makes clear that no other cops — including the smattering of token brown women (Latinas?) who decorate the department — want to be his partner. And yet the white guys in the lockerroom count on him to be on their side against the one orc cop in the department (Joel Edgerton’s Nick Jakoby). Issues of “full-bloodedness” plague Nick as well as the film in general, from the gangsters to elves, whom I think of as the Ivanka Trump contingency.

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90s gangsta flicks, orc-face style

I’m not saying everything should line up smoothly, and the mess is in some ways enjoyable. Interesting is the moment when the leader of the orc crime syndicate tells us that it’s Los Angeles who made him who he has become. He speaks of Miami as a kinder, gentler place for orcs, and given the Jewish/Cuban tourist trap Miami of today, it’s a nicely complex assertion. (Speaking of Jews, why is our outcast orc named “Jakoby,” from the Hebrew Jacob/Yaakov, grandson of Abraham and one of the founders of the 12 tribes of Israel? Should we link this to the Jewish American Max Landis who wrote the film? The history of Jews engaging with race is a complex one, to be sure.)

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Bright‘s Ivanka-style elves: castrating bitch or childlike savior

As critics have noted, the film doesn’t care about women as more than set-dressing. Daryl’s wife is entirely a symbol of what men/cops are fighting for (reminds me in this of Independence Day). The policewomen are token examples to show women can be corrupt, too. Orc women are ho’s. And the named female elves are either vicious killers or a childlike tool for defeating them. Plus, there’s a powerful secret service male elf to offset the blonde villainness. (Because the elves and orcs are simplistic metaphors for white and black, I can’t even say much about the fact that the blue-haired elf is played by Venezuelan actor Edgar Ramirez. And this makes me think about Disney’s 90s Cinderella, in which a black queen and white king somehow give birth to a Filipino prince. I understand the extravaganza approach was similarly handled in John Legend’s recent turn in Jesus Christ Superstar in concert, though we might link that more to the racial unbinding of 21st-century Hamilton than 20th-century multicultural Disney.)

Because depth isn’t within female characters, it’s within the male characters that gender is interesting at all. Like 1985’s Enemy Mine (which was also a mess in editing/pacing, but worth watching  re race/gender, especially to see Louis Gossett Jr. have a baby), the alien is shown to have emotional depth, far more than the human. Nick shows vulnerability and insecurity as well as toughness, and his determination to be a “good cop” and a being worthy of respect reminds me of many a film in which a woman must prove herself to be a man’s equal on masculine turf. Still, I can’t tell what the movie is saying about him: he’s species-complex, has a touch of the feminine in his caring heart, but he’s also like Lassie or Chewbacca, man’s best friend more than an equal. (My husband felt Nick should’ve been the first orc Bright.)

In the end, the tangled mess of a plot is resolved too easily while the contradictory attention to race and standard gender BS is not. That I’ve written this much tells me the film is worth talking about, that it is speaking in muddled and at times highly problematic terms about race today — not even always intentionally. Ultimately, I can’t say I liked it as much as Enemy MineDistrict 9, or Men in Black, but I’ll be thinking about it.