Netflix’s recently released fantasy/cop adventure Bright picked up a sequel Wednesday, despite the film having been roundly condemned by critics as a laughably implausible mess. But sometimes a truly terrible movie can tell you more about cultural prejudices and assumptions than a better film. Unblemished by genius or insight, Bright naively, and boldly, regurgitates America’s magical vision of cops as a force of light and order. (This story contains spoilers.)
Directed by David Ayer, Bright is set in an alternate world in which magic works, and something like Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings really happened some 2000 years in the past. Elves walk the earth as a magical upper-class; orcs are relegated to ghettoes and second-class citizenship for picking the wrong side in that battle between life and darkness some millennia back.
Joel Edgerton plays Nick Jakoby, the first orc on the police force, who is paired with the honest and amazingly skilled hero human cop Daryl Ward (Will Smith). The two of them end up accidentally drawn into a plot by a handful of evil elves to bring back the Dark Lord with a magic wand.
The film is, nominally, about racism in policing. Nick, as an orc, is subject to an unending, vicious stream of insults from his police colleagues, culminating in their effort to murder him. Ward also hates Nick—he even yells at him for daring to come to his house because Nick’s mere presence is an embarrassment. But gradually, Ward learns that even orcs are people. And so we get the edifying spectacle of a black man being taught not to discriminate against a character played by a white guy.
The overlap of police drama and fantasy tropes isn’t altogether new, but Bright makes the racial underpinnings uncomfortably obvious.
The revelation that black people are the real racists is just a side note, though. The film’s real magic trick is that it spends its entire run time on the issue of racism in policing without ever engaging with Black Lives Matter. (This is despite Ward disposing of a pesky winged nuisance while quipping, “Fairy lives don’t matter,” a throwaway line that was apparently ad-libbed by Smith.)
BLM activists have spent the past several years showing that racism in policing isn’t just a matter of individual cops treating black people badly. Rather, police nationwide terrorize black communities with impunity. A federal investigation of the Ferguson, Missouri, police department found that cops in the city treated policing as a way to generate revenue, deliberately arresting and ticketing black residents to fund their own depredations. Even egregious police misconduct, as in the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, almost never results in convictions for the officers. Due to deeply rooted systemic racism, the U.S. criminal justice system indirectly targets, robs and kills black people as a matter of course.
If Bright wanted to talk about racist policing, it could show cops hassling orcs for selling loose cigarettes, or police shooting orcs for having busted brake lights. Racism in policing in our world is a function of day-to-day petty violence and brutality, implicitly or often explicitly sanctioned by a racist society.
Not in the alternate world of Bright, though. Some cops are corrupt, but the good cops make up for everything. After Ward is shot by a random orc with a grudge and a shotgun, Nick chases the killer and loses him in an alley. Nick finds another orc spraying graffiti, and upon realizing this is not the killer, helps him escape before other cops show up.
Thus, the only instance of potential racist injustice in policing occurs after an incredibly serious crime—a cop shooting. And any additional violence is prevented by the conscientious actions of the cop on the scene. Later, Ward literally murders a bunch of racist police officers who want to kill Nick. To the extent racist policing is a problem, it’s a problem that the good police are willing to take care of, no matter the potential risks to themselves.
It’s not just Bright that sees bad cops as aberrations and good cops as the real heroes. Even cynical cop dramas like The Wire and True Detective show their detectives doing worthwhile, important things, like thwarting serial killers or solving drug murders. When they bend or break the rules, they at least have a decent reason for doing so; they’re working toward justice, no matter how imperfectly.
Bright goes further than that, though—and even arguably further than Ayers’ crappy 2012 cop-recruitment poster End of Watch. At the conclusion of Bright (big spoiler, if you care), Ward is revealed to be a kind of chosen one. Only certain rare people can touch and control a magic wand, and most of those individuals are elves, not humans. Ward is the one-in-a-million prophesied human who is a Bright, able to wield magic to save the world. He’s like Luke Skywalker, if Luke Skywalker were a cop. (Some viewers have criticized Ward’s power as an instance of the “Magical Negro” trope.)
The Jedis are in fact a sort-of police force in the prequel Star Wars films. The overlap of police drama and fantasy tropes isn’t altogether new, but Bright makes the racial underpinnings uncomfortably obvious. The magic wand is white; the elves are pale-skinned, graceful, upper-class. Ward is black, but in the film he’s a stand-in for white racists, as he treats Nick the way that white people, in our world, treat black people. Cops are bright because they carry the light against the Lord of Darkness.
Orcs—such as Nick—chose the side of blackness, which is why they are hated. The film presents itself as anti-racist, but its fantasy logic ultimately insists that people have good reason—however long past—for hating the marginalized. The battle lines, moreover, are clear. The FBI and the police are ultimately on the side of order and right; the folks trying to overthrow the status quo in the name of darkness are evil. Cops are saviors, and marginalized people are worthy only to the extent that they fight by the side of the cops.
Critics and viewers alike have noted the troubling way that the film handles race, including Chance the Rapper, who took to Twitter last week to lament the movie’s “shallow” take on race relations. Perhaps tellingly, Bright screenwriter Max Landis is not returning to write the sequel, with director Ayer instead taking over scripting duties.
Bright is terrible because of a bad script and hapless storytelling. But it’s very badness is also illuminating. Bright shows, with uncomfortable clarity, that it’s easier for filmmakers to imagine orcs and elves than it is for them to imagine that police might not be a force for good.