Will Smith’s Bright: racial allegory or straight up racism?

As a sequel to one of Netflix’s biggest ever hits gets greenlit, we explore sci-fi’s problematic relationship with race

Nobody was sure what to think when Netflix recently announced that it was making a sequel to Bright, its most expensive movie to date. That’s mainly because nobody was sure what to think of Bright in the first place. Was it a bracing new blend of fantasy, sci-fi and cop movie and a return to form for Will Smith? Or a convoluted, racially offensive mess? Most critics hated Bright (it scores 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, 29 on Metacritic); by contrast, the public loved it. On its release last December, Bright was watched by 11 million people in the United States in its first three days – hence the sequel.

Much of the sticking point with Bright comes down to its headline conceit: fantasy creatures living in modern-day Los Angeles. In Bright’s scenario, elves are now the moneyed elite, humans are in the middle of society and orcs are the underclass – distrusted, mocked, discriminated against, persecuted and socially deprived. Many orcs are gang members, who hang out in sportswear and chunky jewellery and finger-gun the cops driving by. Do you see what they did there?

Actually, it’s not all that clear what Bright is doing. The film is too busy tearing through a plot stuffed with wands, prophecies, shoot-outs, car chases and evil elf cabals to explain the finer points of its racially charged society. Racial allegories such as this are a staple of sci-fi and fantasy, and are often assumed to shine a light on modern-day society. But if Bright shines a light on anything, it’s how problematic these kind of movies are. There’s a thin line between racial allegory and straight-up racist. One of the first to object was Chance the Rapper. “I found the way they tried to illustrate americas racism through the mythical creatures to be a little shallow,” he tweeted, adding, “I always feel a lil cheated when I see allegorical racism in movies.” Defenders pointed out that Bright made interesting points about power structures, intolerance and prejudice. And the fact that racism between humans no longer exists in Bright’s world is a positive, right? But if it takes an extended Twitter thread to explain your racial allegory, then maybe it’s not working.

The most successful sci-fi race allegories keep it simple but keep it smart. In the first Planet of the Apes movie in 1968, the highly evolved apes are the dominant species and the human hero, Charlton Heston, is considered inferior. Thus, the movie slyly turns the racial tables. Heston is captured, beaten, stripped, even threatened with castration. He is treated like an African-American slave would have been, and white audiences identified with him. Unfortunately, later Apes sequels flipped the tables back, and gradually morphed into a sort of white-supremacist paranoia trip by the time of 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – which basically restaged the Watts riots as an apes-v-police revolt. The recent Apes trilogy is a far more nuanced take, thankfully, but still sides with the oppressed, stateless, incarcerated ape community. Neill Blomkamp’s District 9 also sides with the victims. Its pitiable aliens are corralled into a squalid refugee camp by the uncaring humans, and the noblest character in the film is an alien called Christopher. The fact that this is post-apartheid Johannesburg screams “race allegory!”, but District 9 avoids making a literal aliens = black Africans equivalence.

Bright attempts something similar, but gets its wires crossed. The principal orc character, played by Joel Edgerton, is the LAPD’s first non-human cop: a “diversity hire”. In time-honoured fashion, he is partnered with a grouchy human cop who hates orcs. The set-up bears suspicious similarities to the 1988 sci-fi movie Alien Nation, in which James Caan plays the grouchy cop partnering up with an alien newbie; but in Bright, the human is Will Smith. So you’ve got an African American who’s basically playing a racist. Huh? Early on, Smith also brutally batters to death an innocent fairy, stating: “Fairy lives don’t matter.” Again – huh? Smith described the role as “an interesting flip. It gave me room to explore the idea from a different angle. It familiarised me with the psychological perspective of superiority”. For many viewers, it was a flip too far.

Even successful race allegories don’t necessarily stand up to scrutiny, though. The minority “mutants” of Marvel’s X-Men, for example, gave the comics and movies licence to explore questions of tolerance, integration and resistance. Their story is often compared to the US civil rights struggles of the 1960s, with a conscious Martin Luther King/Malcolm X dynamic between the two mutant leaders, peaceable Professor Xavier and confrontational Magneto. “The war is still coming, Charles, and I intend to fight it, by any means necessary,” Ian McKellen’s Magneto tells Patrick Stewart’s Xavier in the first X-Men movie. But the analogy is not perfect. For one thing, the X-Men are overwhelmingly white (and, like most of these stories, it was created by white people). For another, they have awesome superpowers, so when they experience discrimination, they’re in a pretty good position to do something about it, like shoot lasers from their eyes.

Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace.
Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I - The Phantom Menace. Photograph: Lucasfilm/Kobal/REX/Shutterstock

There is a wider problem with the whole exercise of mapping people of colour on to fantasy or alien species. Bright’s orcs are somewhat dim-witted. They don’t get humans’ sophisticated use of irony and metaphor. Does that suggest black or Latino people are the same? If not, why is the movie’s orc culture directly modelled on theirs? How come they’ve evolved in exactly the same way? Fantasy creatures don’t have to chime with human ethnicities. In his foreword to The Lord of the Rings, JRR Tolkien, originator of orcs and elves, wrote: “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence.” The association is driven home all the time in sci-fi and fantasy by casting actors of colour as aliens. Star Wars’s infamous Jar Jar Binks (played by Ahmed Best) has become a poster, er, thing for such wrong-headed racial caricaturing. Think also of the blue-skinned Na’vi in Avatar, all voiced by actors from minority backgrounds, including Zoe Saldana. Or Saldana’s green-skinned Gamora in Guardians of the Galaxy, Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata in Star Wars, Idris Elba’s Krall in Star Trek: Beyond, Paula Patton playing another orc in Warcraft: The Beginning. The implication that non-white people are a better fit for non-humans is troubling to say the least.

Previous generations spent a lot of time and energy seeking to establish racial difference in order to justify their own prejudices, abuses and injustices. Laws governing slavery and segregation hinged on the premise there really were different “races”. Science has long since debunked this notion – there is no real genetic difference between humans of all skin colours – but these movies serve to re-establish it. Drawing equivalence between fantasy species and real-life minorities turns imaginary differences into literal ones. Maybe the future’s brighter without a Bright sequel.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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