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Man in Black: Does Will Smith's race matter?

Written by Victor Wong.

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Smith and Hollywood Blackness

Will Smith is one of Hollywood's biggest stars, earning upwards of $20 million per film since he took the role of Ali (2001) in the movie that placed him definitively in the top bracket of Hollywood's A-list. At the time of writing, Smith has just set a new record for the most number of film premieres in one day and his latest film Hitch (2005) achieved the highest opening figures ever for a romantic comedy on its way to the top of the US box office. He's one of those rare stars that appeals to everyone, men, women and children. Yet, unusually for Hollywood's top stars, Will Smith is black.

I wish to argue that Smith's skin colour has been cleverly relegated to a secondary concern via a complicated process of masking and containment which results in a marketable and safe black man for a white audience. I will be focussing here particularly on Smith's role in Men In Black (1997), a significant film for him because it marks the point at which he became a leading actor in his own right, able to sell a film on the strength of his name alone rather than as half of a buddy star-pairing. The J/Edwards character he plays in it is also absolutely typical of his Hollywood roles and probably his most famous to date.

What is Smith's relationship to other representations - and stereotypes - of blackness in Hollywood's past and present? He is clearly not linked with the ghetto culture of recent times, nor does he seem obviously to conform to any previous racist Hollywood stereotypes of black males. He is certainly no "lazy coon" for instance: to date he has saved mankind no less than three times. Of past representations, he seems closest to the positive, non-threatening image of blackness created by Sidney Poitier and his on-screen personas in the 50s and 60s in films like Guess Who's Coming To Dinner? (1967). I make the link not only because Smith's first major role in Hollywood came in Six Degrees of Separation (1993), in which his character Paul claims to be Poitier's son; more importantly, the two actors are linked via their status as huge crossover stars, particularly because of their ability to attract multicultural audiences.

Doesn't Matter if You're Black or White?

Certainly in the popular press, Will Smith has been noted and admired for this crossover appeal. Some quarters claim that he is in the position where race ceases to be an issue. Smith himself has expressed this attitude in the past: his own claim about Bad Boys (1995), for example, is that 'It's not a black movie or a white movie - it's a movie'. The Observer's Paul Harris has even written that, for Will Smith, 'success is colour-blind', continuing: 'Each summer Smith transcended his race. After Bad Boys (which was a black buddy movie which white audiences adored), his blockbuster roles were not defined by being black. His part in Men in Black was originally slated for Chris O'Donnell, a white actor-Race just did not seem to matter to the parts offered to Smith'. This would almost suggest that Will Smith does not even belong amongst Hollywood representations of blackness, being outside of them - certainly he himself would seem to encourage such a view. However, a closer examination of the films suggests that racial issues are actually very much present.

His films sometimes demonstrate a highly tentative approach to race, avoiding racial issues rather than addressing them. As Andrew O'Hehir noted in his review for Wild Wild West (1999), 'the film never even tries to explain how a black man has become a prominent federal agent less than four years after the abolition of slavery'. Likewise, Donald Bogle takes issue with The Legend of Bagger Vance (2000), saying, 'One only wonders why the black Bagger isn't prone to helping any black people solve their problems, especially since this is the apartheid South of the Great Depression era.'

At other times, his films do comment on race, but fail to establish a clear attitude about racial issues. Enemy Of the State (1998) has no overt racial agenda yet still features one scene where Smith's character refutes the suggestion that he is a "sheister lawyer," explaining, "I believe the slur sheister is generally reserved for Jewish attorneys. I believe the proper slur for someone like myself would be eggplant." The remainder of the film is conspicuously free from references to race or racism. Bad Boys makes vague jokes about race, with Mike (Smith) telling his black partner Marcus that, "you drive almost slow enough to drive Miss Daisy" but the light-hearted attitude to race does not remain consistent throughout the movie (for example the film and its sequel actually rely on xenophobia, demonising their unambiguously foreign villains, all of whom speak with heavy accents).

Black Man in Black

Men In Black and its sequel also joke about race. One of Smith's first lines in the film happens in fact to be, "It just be rainin' black people in New York!". This is his first line of significant dialogue, and immediately establishes his persona, yet is treated as a throwaway quip. Could this have been Chris O'Donnell's first line as Edwards? Yet because it is treated so casually, the issue is also complicated. In this case (and this is equally applicable to Enemy of the State), it is possible to accept the line as superfluous and argue that it is so offhand because the idea of race is not important to the film, or it is equally plausible to suggest that the line is arbitrarily inserted into the film in order to raise some laughs and provide a token acknowledgement of Smith's skin colour. The sequel, Men In Black II (2002), contains a similar moment where race is treated slightly uneasily, and used as a throwaway joke. This occurs when J removes the MiB car's (white) hologram-driver with the line, "Actually it came with a black dude but he kept getting pulled over." One could argue that these moments of uncertainty suggest that Hollywood does not know how to treat racial difference, sitting uncomfortably in seemingly harmless once-off remarks which actually making black people the butt of the joke.

The use of token black characters throughout both Men In Black films seems to confirm this nervous uncertainty. For instance, the first film's MiB recruitment process sees Edwards being pitted against the "best of the best of the best" from the military. There are six other candidates; four are white Caucasian and two are black. There is no attempt to include other races in this elite collection, such as Hispanics or Chinese, and even the two black men seem to be token insertions made with the specific interest of racial appeasement. Geoff King comments on this in his book New Hollywood Cinema, 'The first of the rivals to be supplied with any lines is also black: an implicit disavowal, it seems, of any suggestion that the looser "hipness" of Edwards is merely a familiar racist stereotype'. The sequel demonstrates a similar uneasiness, populating the MiB headquarters with black agents for apparently no other reason than to demonstrate that the agency is not racist (J was the only black agent in the original Men In Black). J's arrival back at headquarters in Men in Black II shows half a dozen black characters pass by in the background, and the only agent J talks to, is a young black man. However, the attempt to show racial diversity fails because it ignores other racial groups, and the lack of any character interest or development in the black agents reduces them to being ciphers rather than actual people.

Masking Smith's Blackness

Nonetheless, Men In Black does attempt to engage with racial concerns slightly more than the other Will Smith films I have mentioned (Six Degrees notwithstanding). Instead of ignoring Smith's blackness, Men In Black reconfigures it. His race is contained, and in the process he is made "safe". The terms of this safety (from a white perspective) can be better understood via the Sidney Poitier link, who, as I have said, is a comparable figure to Smith because of their appeal to white as well as black markets. As Peter Bogle has said: Poitier symbolized a safe 'Negro' in the eyes of a mass white audience, 'a black man who met their standards' whose characters 'were the perfect dream for white liberals anxious to have a coloured man in for lunch or dinner. His characters were tame; never did they act impulsively, nor were they threats to the system. They were amenable and compliant. And, finally, they were non-funky, almost sexless and sterile'.

The development of Smith's character in Men In Black mirrors Poitier's safe prototype. He begins the film as a NYPD officer James Edwards but ends it as J, and this change of job and identity is accompanied by a process of racial assimilation, moving Smith from a position of being "distinctively black" to one where race is no longer so visible. When the film starts, Edwards is immediately held in contrast to his white colleagues. He is more athletic, wears loud clothing and has more attitude.

While these contrasts may be partially explained by Edwards' youth, I believe that it is difficult not to read racial difference as an important, if not dominant, factor. Edwards can outrun his colleagues because he is young and fit, but perhaps also because he is black. This follows a Hollywood tradition of presenting blackness as synonymous with athleticism. Critics such as Stuart Hall have mentioned the myth of the 'super-male black athlete' as something to be admired, or even feared, and films such as White Men Can't Jump (1992) have engaged with this notion. Here in Men in Black, Edwards is introduced mid-sprint: running, leaping and climbing in pursuit of a suspect. Long after his white colleagues give up the chase, Edwards captures the runaway, and his superhuman athleticism is made sharper when the audience discovers he has been chasing an extraterrestrial. This athleticism is a potential cause for white male insecurity, and the contemptuous comments that Edward's weightier colleague makes in the interrogation room suggest that he is indeed threatened by it. Moreover, when the policeman attempts to reclaim superiority with a patronising insult, "If you were half the man I am..." he is totally undermined by Edwards' snappier comeback, as he retorts with a swift, "What you talkin' about, I am half the man you are!"

This ability to outtalk white peers follows a tradition of black actors such as Samuel L Jackson and Eddie Murphy and is a more recent development in Hollywood's depictions of black men. Paula Massood sees a 'hyper-masculine' trend arising from 1970s blaxploitation films. She argues that their protagonists used 'fist or gun-as a counter to cultural articulations of black male inferiority', and I would also include verbal weaponry as a means of debunking this myth of inferiority, as Edwards utilises here. In Shaft (1971), the titular character replies to a white cop's "Where the hell are you going?" with a curt, "I'm going to get laid, where are you going?" The black hero, John Shaft, rejects notions of inferiority in several ways. He is asserting his autonomy (as a private detective) from the police force and foregrounding his sexuality as a black man - itself a cause of white male anxiety - and all this whilst gaining the upper hand through quick wits and quicker tongue. The example from Men In Black, whilst nowhere near as explicit, shows Will Smith being able to exercise a similar power and simultaneously draws attention to the difference between the physical and mental states of the quick young black cop and the older, fatter white one, with the black cop emerging the superior each time.

However, unlike the blaxploitation picture, Men In Black's interests are in making the black man into a safe conformist, rather than an edgy vigilante like Shaft. Consequently, the film quickly puts Edwards back into his place via the reassertion of white patriarchal control. This containment manifests itself most obviously in the pairing of Smith with an older white male, a tactic also used in Wild Wild West (with Kevin Kline), Independence Day (1997) (Jeff Goldblum) and to some degree Enemy of the State (Gene Hackman). Reinforcing the sense of white authority is his recurring location within hierarchical institutions, here being a secret non-Governmental organisation, but in other films it is usually the military or police force. In this film, white patriarchy soon begins to impose upon the areas that Edwards shows significant skill in. Edwards' athleticism, far from being utilised by the MiB organisation, is made almost redundant later in the film. For example, in chasing Edgar out of the morgue, J dashes out onto the street. It echoes the opening chase (again on the street) where Edwards catches up with his suspect, only this time he is denied this satisfaction. Instead, his senior white mentor, K, pulls up in his car and orders him to get in. J/Edwards' athletic ability to run suspects down on foot is no longer relevant. It is also interesting to note that the film's climax ends with K, not J, performing the physical heroics, entering the belly of the beast to retrieve his gun and exploding it from within. J is just left to try and stall Edgar, mostly achieved by being thrown all around the park. The removal of athletic prowess from the physical black man and the consolidation of white paternal authority helps to make the black character less of a threat, and more easily acceptable.

Similarly, the quick mind and sharp tongue that Edwards displays is subjected to control once he enters the MiB organisation. Firstly, K is equally as articulate and intelligent as J and secondly, he speaks impeccable English. In comparison, J retains a looser, blacker form of speech that commonly manifests itself in dropped vowels, incorrect verb conjugation and sentence structure, as one can detect in the earlier example, "It just be rainin' black people in New York!" Whilst his wit is still there, J loses some of his ability to outtalk others. The most striking example of all of these phenomena is his entry into MiB headquarters itself. As the elevator descends, Edwards eloquently informs K how he would like to be treated.

Alright I'm in cos, look, there's some next level shit goin' on here and I'm wit' that, but before y'all get to beamin' me up there's a coupla things I want you to understand. First off, you chose me, so you recognize the skills, and I don't want no one calling me son, nor kid, or sport or nuttin like that, cool?

Cool, whatever you say, slick, but I need to tell you something about all your skills, as of right now, they mean precisely - dick.

So, in one short scene, Edwards - the quick-thinking, fast-talking black man - has been put in his place by a white patriarchal figure, who does not even look at him as he speaks. Not only this, but despite Edwards' request, K persists in addressing him as "kid" and "slick" throughout the film, a point I shall return to later.

Castrating Smith

Bogle's quote earlier in this essay noted that an important part of Poitier's safe appeal derived from his 'almost sexless and sterile' characterisation, and Men in Black follows this model with Smith. This is because black sexuality, most vividly contained in the black-buck stud stereotype, can be threatening to white masculinity. Kobena Mercer summarises this anxiety as, 'That most fixed of racial myths in the white male imaginary, namely the belief that every black man has a monstrously large willy-The primal fantasy of the big black penis projects the fear of a threat not only to white womanhood, but to civilization itself.' In Men In Black, J is thus denied masculine potency. Either he is placed in a feminine role (for example acting as midwife and delivering an alien baby) or he is simply denied the use of powerful weaponry and machinery. For one, he is not allowed to drive the MiB car, and the film is very aware that this is seen as a signifier of masculinity, shown through the constant bickering between J and K about driving privileges. More striking is J's emasculation when K gives him a weapon.

Long held as an obvious phallic symbol, the guns in Men In Black signify the negation of black sexual threat posed by J. Following Mercer's claim that the big black penis threatens the whole of civilization itself, the tiny phallus that J is given, in the shape of the 'Noisy Cricket', reassures the audience that he is harmless. The white male reserves for himself an enormous, shiny gun, whilst giving his under-whelmed black partner a weapon barely large enough to hold. This scene consolidates the power of white patriarch, whilst emasculating the black male and thereby relieving the threat posed to the 'white male imaginary' and 'white womanhood'. Once again, the danger suggested by the character's (and by extension, Smith's) blackness is contained and made safe.

Muted Black

As well as undermining Edwards' physical, mental and sexual abilities, Men In Black affects a process of containment through costume. Before joining MiB, Edwards appears in three different outfits in quick succession and all of them feature gaudy primary colours.

The clothing is unmistakeably loud, funky and "street". Clearly, the outfits draw inevitable associations with rap, not least because of Smith's status as a rap singer himself. A study of the rapper Puff Daddy demonstrates the stylistic similarity Edwards shares with his black contemporaries. As with his other "black" characteristics (athleticism, quick wit), this is soon subject to stricter control and he is placed in a smart, but anonymous suit.

The MiB organisation preserves white conservative western values, placing older Caucasian men such as K in senior positions. Furthermore, MiB's highest-ranking agent, Z, is yet another white patriarch and notably, it is he who gives the order, "Edwards, let's put it on," and when asked "Put what on?" ominously replies, "The last suit you'll ever wear." Z's voiceover, whilst Edwards' identity is being reassigned, emphasises the themes of conformism and assimilation, both so important to the subduing of race. "You'll dress only in attire specially sanctioned by MiB Special Services. You'll conform to the identity we give you; eat where we tell you; live where we tell you."

This ordering-around of Smith clearly has somewhat edgy overtones when approached with race in mind. There is also something to be said here about the term "kid", mentioned earlier, and its disconcerting proximity to the term "boy" which was used as a mode of address for grown black men, particularly during the slavery era. K repeatedly persists in referring to J as kid, despite his specific request that he not be patronised in this manner upon joining the organisation. It is treated in an offhand way, but the number of times it occurs shows a lack of respect towards J, and makes uneasy parallels with the racist way white males have tended to degrade black men by aligning them with childlike qualities. As sociologist Stuart Hall has said: 'a central strand of the racial power exercised by the white male slave master was the denial of-masculine attributes to black male slaves, such as authority'.

Equally, when interviewing witnesses, K uses pseudonyms that border on racist. During the reconnaissance of Edgar's landing site, K introduces himself as Special Agent Manheim whilst his pseudonym for J, which prompts a look from his colleague, is Special Agent Black. Later in the morgue, K refers to J this time as Dr White. Once more this brings a dubious look from his partner. Arguably, these incidents are nothing more than a running gag, but they may also indicate a transformation in the way J is viewed (no longer black or white, or perhaps even that he has turned from black to white). Either way, these incidents are actually highly reductive, potentially racist and harmful in the way that the senior white male makes J's skin colour into a joke.

Although not a racist film, it is moments like this that make Men In Black somewhat ambiguous. The humorous nature of these references suggests that the idea of race is superfluous to this film whereas the whole process of Smith's assimilation is actually based on the assertion of white control over black. In making Edwards subject to the orders of K, his character falls in line with centuries of white control and repression of blacks. So, not only is his character infused with racial stereotypes of blackness, e.g. in his athleticism or fashion sense, but the way in which these traits are contained recalls the history of black repression.

Nevertheless, it would be uncharitable to suggest that Men In Black has nothing new to offer, and I do not believe that it is in fact racist. It is important to notice the way in which blackness is also shown as something to be admired and aspired to, and not simply to be contained or hidden. This is why when Edwards puts on the MiB suit he declares, "You know what the difference is between me and you? I make this look good!" Additionally it is important to note that, despite the actual heroics being performed by K during the film's climactic fight, the epilogue liberates J from his subordinate role, and he finally is allowed to take the lead and even to drive. He is also in a stylish new suit. Thus, the film finally promotes him. It is also where Smith differs slightly from Poitier because, not only does he make blackness palatable, his blackness is eminently desirable, a trend that partly arises from hip hop. Where Poitier is "non-funky", J is very funky, and he knows it. It is noticeable that the theme tune to Men in Black (by Smith) is a rap, nowadays the dominant form of music for both black and white youth in America. Smith's rap skills are to be admired, and this is a celebration of blackness rather than a limitation. The Men in Black II theme tune (also written and performed by Smith) supports this theory, as Smith raps his support firstly for "black" in the sense of the MiB organisation, and then for "black" as a racial characteristic.

Out of the depths of your imagination appears Will Smith
Black suit, the black shades, the black shoes
Black tie with the black attitude!

However, a further obvious point to be made about this is that Smith's rap style is also highly sanitized, and noted for its absence of swearing, machismo, violence and sexual imagery. In other words, as Geoff King says, 'his music is rap made safe for black and white middle-class teenagers and their parents, devoid of the controversy often associated with the form'. This is a significant selling point of his style of rap and contributes to the perception of him as a safe black performer, though in this case it has not been so obviously engineered by white hierarchies or movie scripts.

Ultimately, Smith's blackness is one that has been made safe for consumption by Hollywood audiences in several ways, including a lessening of conspicuously black characteristics, and by imposing some level of white authority upon him. There should not, incidentally, be any doubt that it is the creation of Will Smith's image as safe which has directly enabled him to assume his status in the upper echelons of Hollywood's A-list. Men In Black, which explicitly shows us this image being constructed, was a landmark for his star status, and it is perhaps no coincidence that Smith entered the mainstream as a major star at the same time as his blackness was thoroughly masked, contained, and made safe for a white audience in this film.

This article was published on July 21, 2005.