Posted by: Khepera | Thursday, 17 July 2008

Movie Review: In Class with Hancock…& then some


I originally posted this earlier int he week, admittedly, before seeing the film since I had no interest in doing so from all the promos I had seen. However, earlier this week, an associate on a list I subscribe to posted some very intriguing points about the film, which were sufficient for me to unpublish this post until I had seen the film, which I did yesterday. I am still posting Prof. Agozino’s review/essay since I still largely agree with his points. However, there are some other factors which I now realize are at play here, and the dynamic of context/perception needs to be addressed.

WARNING
For those who have not seen the film,
the following text includes references & descriptions
which may constitute *spoilers* to some,
so be advised.

I connected with Prof. Agozino, to get his permission to post the full text here. These are insightful & perceptive comments. I will place mine following his text, to allow you to digest his first…

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In Class with Hancock
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 Spider-Man, 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. bagozino@yahoo.com

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After seeing the film, there is a significant amount of subtlety & subtext which, if gleaned, can enrich one’s viewing experience. However, as a writer & scholar familiar with many of these subtextual elements, I still feel I would have missed them while viewing the movie had I not been alerted to them in advance. The #1 rule in literature, film, even engineering drawings is: If the work cannot stand on its own as explicate & readily discernible actuality — without some psyche-prompter on your shoulder hissing hints about subtext & metaphor — then at some level, the work has ultimately failed. On this count, I must say Hancock did not make the grade.

At the core of this issue of perception/accessibility is the crucial element of just what Hancock is. We are repeatedly urged to accept the idea that he is simply a *super hero*, with whatever his tale of origin may be. Yet, when we get to the meat of the script — the last third of the film — we discover that Hancock is much more than simply a *super hero*. Now, while I understand the writer’s contention, there are several super heroes who have been straight up gods within the context of their own mythology — Thor leaps immediately to mind. That said, the distinction being sought here for Hancock isn’t given the legs, the character development needed to really make the concept fly…pardon the pun. They had a shot with this film, to do something significant, but it is clear in several of their choices — from casting to dialogue — that there were overriding concerns about offending certain folks, or stepping dangerously outside the box of acceptable paradigms.

After seeing the movie, I still agree with most everything Prof. Agozino posits in his review/essay. I did some checking around the web, and there were some intriguing, but odd, responses to these words. One of the most intriguing was the ‘legitimzing’ assertion that in the 21st century, super heroes are in fact imaged this way, and they use the example of Superman in Superman Returns, where he is a drunk, etc., etc.

If we examine this paradigm historically — the flawed anti-hero or quasi-hero — we will see that it is not new, though there are some critical factors which come into play here which make Hancock a different case. For most with a sense of cinematic history, Humphrey Bogart was one of the first to get good mileage out of this twist on the stereotypical hero. Instead of a polar differentiation between hero/villain(I refuse to use the B&W ref), Bogie was more of a blend — a little nasty stirred up with the nice. In the 60’s, Clint Eastwood made a career out of this character with the introduction of ‘spaghetti’ westerns(a tip of the hat to Leone). More recently, Bruce Willis and Mel Gibson(most notably in Payback) have rendered this type well. Perhaps most recently, the XXX films with first Vin Diesel and then Ice Cube render this character, with mixed results, though Diesel’s Riddick character is a classic example of this type of hero.

Now, imho, all of these examples share some simple parallels — of commonality & distinction. Let me establish the paradigm first… At a spoken word event I attended a while back, a young blind brother moved to the mike and told this story:

“I’ve been blind since birth. Once, when I was in the tenth grade, a buddy and I were sitting on a table in the room, waiting for the teacher to start class. Suddenly, the door slammed. I nudged him in the side, and asked “Did you see that?!” We both cracked up laughing(so did the audience).

“Ah,” he cautioned, “but I can tell that joke, and you can’t, cuz I’m the one who’s blind. Do you get it? That’s what we’re saying about using the ‘N’ word…” ..and it went on from there.”

Whether you accept his argument @ the ‘N’ word or not, it is viable in terms of a host of situations. Foxworthy can tell redneck jokes cuz he is/was one(you choose). We tell Black jokes we would be offended to hear come out of a non-AA’s mouth. I’m not trying to get into the ethics or right/wrong of this, but it is pertinent. It’s pertinent, because at the core of many of Prof. Agozino’s assertions is an issue which has been with us since slavery, on a variety of levels, and is a battle every non-white group in this society has grappled with in terms of characterization in the media(Charlie Chan etc.).

This issue is one of rising above stereotypes, especially where those images are clearly chosen/presented as a means of psychic oppression/control. Simply put, once you have established a particular group or type of person as representing the full range — or most at least — of positive empowered images, it is then more reasonable to portray them in less savory modalities. Why? It’s all about context. When we see drunken Indians in DreamKeeper, it is after may years & films of other images, like Dances With Wolves, Geronimo: An American Legend, Buffalo Soldiers, etc., where Amerindians are shown in various aspects of their true power and glory, as they are in DreamKeeper. However, what makes Hancock deficient in the context of this discussion is that there has been no such rendering of a broad & empowering set of Black characters in cinema and TV. Yes, of course, there are many examples one can point to, starting with the Cosby Show.However, a salient argument can be made — and statistics support this — that the range AA of characters, shown prominently, are strongly weighted to one side, and, imho, this is both before & without the influence of Hip Hop/Gangsta rap.

That said, one must recognize that in film, as in all aspects of life, what you get out of an experience is often dramatically impacted by what we bring to it — our life experiences, and, perhaps, more importantly, our sensibilities as derived from those experiences. Our perceptions, even when fully informed, are largely characterized by memory, by prior associations. On this point, one thing is clear — those of us who either grew up through the Civil Rights/Black Power movement, or, through upbringing & choice choose to be grounded in those realities will likely pull a reading from this film largely in alignment with the above text. However, we must also consider those for whom racism, cultural oppression, conditioning through stereotypes, etc. are essentially background noise to an awareness which seeks new directions on what they assume is new & unplowed ground. Some of us may say we know this perspective to be an illusion, yet one cannot escape the truth that “perception is reality.” For this group, many of the subtleties of the film we be missed — music & visual references for example. However, they are similarly freed to enjoy certain elements in the film

Other fairly deep commentaries in this film is its extension of a *super hero* theme, to my knowledge, first introduced by Marvel Comics — the abuse of power & the examination of the presumptuousness & ingratitude of the public in their reactions toward *super heroes*. This is probably most poignantly engaged in the Spider-Man comics. Led by the Bugle, published by J.J. Jamison, he & the public constantly flip-flop about Spider-Man’s status/role — is he hero or vigilante? Is he a good guy or a nemesis? Peter Parker/Spider-Man knows this intimately because as a photographer for the Bugle newspaper, he witnesses Jamison’s avaricious lust for photos of Spider-Man — whether to revile or exalt him — not because he likes Spider-Man, but because he is convinced the pix sell more papers. This tension in public opinion — and their projection of expectations & standards of behavior onto the *super hero*/Hancock — is a foil for our behaviors in our everyday lives. We tend to readily project these expectations/standards onto others, yet rarely hold ourselves to the same measure.

One area of disagreement for me has to do with Prof. Agozino’s reading of the symbolism/meaning of Hancock shoving one man’s head up another’s ass. Given that he threatens to do this much earlier in the film, before he goes to jail, ascribing jail house metaphors to the act is a bit of a leap for me. From early on, the film establishes that for Hancock, being called an asshole is a major buzz word for him. Years ago, I had a friend like that — you could call him anything, talk about his mother, etc., but call him “stupid,”, and all hell broke out.

My last point, I will quote from my email to Prof. Agozino:

In regards to your analysis, a broader question might be why is it that Will Smith keeps making these sorts of choices — Legend, I, Robot, etc. — while turning down projects like The Matrix(he was the first choice of the Wachowski Brothers for the role of Neo. He read the script & turned it down, based on my info.) This is a tragic pattern, especially given what he could be doing given his immense stature in the hip hop world.

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Responses

  1. Thanks for posting the review. Please check out this blog and click on response to see my answer to some of the wonderful comments that the original review attracted. Let us keep the discussion going.

    http://massliteracy.blogspot.com/

    Biko

  2. they did not write the story based on a black actor. THe only reason will smith is in this movie is because he is the only actor in hollywood who could actually act out the unique character of hancock


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