!!! WARNING – SPOILERS BELOW !!!!
Hancock is a big incoherent mess, anchored beautifully by Will Smith’s brilliant central performance. But it’s also an intriguing, big incoherent mess.
Hancock continues Will’s recent trend to combine depth and spectacle. It also, along with I Am Legend, marks a shift in how race complicates and enriches Will’s screen performances.
This is what makes the film so intriguing.
Film Journal International explains:
Since leaving his Fresh Prince persona behind for global movie stardom, Will Smith has established two distinct screen identities. On the one hand, there’s Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the WorldTM, who keeps moviegoers laughing and cheering in blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Hitch. Between those crowd-pleasers, though, we’re treated to Mr. William Smith*, a hard-working dramatic actor who throws himself into challenging roles like a legendary boxer or a homeless single father and reaps acclaim and awards for his efforts. Recently, the soon-to-be-40-year-old has worked hard to fuse these personas into the same movie. (emphasis added)
This merger of personas means that “Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the World TM” is now becoming increasingly comfortable with bringing a more complex black man, one that he’s crafted beautifully in his dramas, to his big budget films.
To put a fine point on it: Will has only played a black man on screen three times (Where The Day Takes You, Six Degrees of Separation, and Ali ). All three, not coincidentally, diversions from his “big budget” career. The Pursuit of Happyness and The Legend of Bagger Vance do not count because the films were so aggressively, so doggedly concerned with deracinated blackness (or what other critics call “incidental blackness”).
But in Hancock, there is are clever allusions to life as a black man (not to mention a golden-era hip hop soundtrack) that never quite payoff, but are worth discussing. Hancock is not unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man. Hancock is underappreciated and alone in the world and that has an effect on his ability to connect or behave appropriately. His backstory eloquently puts his behavior in some context. His behavior then has a melancholy nonchalance (played beautifully by Will in those first 50 minutes) that makes him more than the “asshole” he is purported to be.
Interestingly, a couple of reviews actually acknowledge that race colors the film.
Popmatters.com is eloquent when it states:
Ray can say this: he’s never been a scary black man with limitless physical powers and a stockpile of anger. Hancock has other issues, beyond his own psychic health, beyond his daily efforts to support the system that has made him feel so alienated and mad. The film notes these issues in passing, en route to its much more predictable and unenlightening resolution. But Hancock can’t actually consider the pop cultural environment that produces Hancock. It would have to be a different, more coherent movie. (emphasis added)
What they allude to in this passage is that Hancock’s race is completely erased, or discarded, after Mary (Charlize Theron, in a strong performance ) reveals her connection to Hancock. You can tell most directly by the fact that, from this point on, the hip-hop soundtrack switches to a typical melodrama score. This can somewhat be explained by the fact that the tone of the film switches so drastically at this point. But the subtext of this switch in tone, music (and Hancock’s behavior) seems to be that Hancock has to be deracinated once it is revealed that he’s Mary’s spouse and because, yea, a big scary black man with limitless power is, well…scary.
This is an imperfect reading of the film because the film becomes a disaster after the big reveal and never pays off what it sets up with respect to race. In addition, Hancock’s blackness relies a whole helluva lot on Will Smith’s blackness to convey some of the subtext that makes the opening 50 minutes so intriguing.
The film then ultimately only flirts with making Will Smith a full-fledged black man.
But with I Am Legend (where his character is clearly black and even talks about it) and Hancock, we see Hollywood filmmakers, and Will himself, struggling to figure out what it means to have a black actor in a film environment that has historically been a white one. You can see in I Am Legend that they are unsure what it means for the last man on Earth to be a black man. His blackness is mentioned in passing (a speech about Bob Marley), but it is so intrinsic to who Robert Neville (Will’s character) is that its worth noting as a shift in Will’s big budget persona.
It’s worth noting that neither film “blackens” Will expertly, or even believably, all the time, but its interesting to watch.
This merger of Will’s persona that FJI discusses then hinges on rendering complex representations of race in film contexts that Hollywood has never done before. Because what makes Will’s dramatic performances work is that the people he portrays are three-dimensional people, three-dimensional black people. If you insert that kind of character into a big budget film, things necessarily change.
In an article I wrote a few years ago, I posited that the real arrival of black actors will be when our unique histories and identities are not erased by simply inserting us into roles written for white actors. This means that any film with black leads is inherently different than one with white leads because our experiences are different. And it should be written that way.
What does it mean that the last man on Earth is black? What does a film like that look like?
What does a black superhero look like? How does that flip comic book convention?
It’s not as simple as inserting a black actor into a role like, oh, just about every role Will has had before. Robert Neville and Hancock are different kind of protagonists because they are black.
It’s nice to see that acknowledged and grapped with, if imperfectly.
*Interestingly, Will is short for Willard, not William.