The old Duboisian definition of being black is that you have to ride Jim Crow in Georgia, but an updated version of that standard might be that the character you play onscreen must have blues and rap as his theme music and serve the crucial plot point of helping the white couple get together. By those standards, Hancock (played by Will Smith) is black. And when his thousand year lifespan seems to have been plagued by a surprising amount of violence arbitrarily directed at him for no apparent reason, one explanation might be the equally surprising amount of violence that has been directed at people of color over the course of the last thousand years or so. Who, after all, are the “they” who attacked Hancock and his wife in ancient Sumeria, Napoleonic France, and Florida in the twenties? The movie never directly explains itself on this point, and I initially chalked it up to the Preposterous Superhero Backstory explanation (henceforth, the PSB). But the PSB actually never says anything about why the two of them keep getting attacked, or why there’s something about their relationship that seems to put the both of them in danger of violence. All the others of their superhero kind, the PSB tells us, have died because they consumated their relationships, but while Charlize Theron’s character says they became mortal when they got together (and presumably died of old age or something equally banal) there is a certain unexplained excess about their particular relationship. Why do they keep getting attacked when they’re together? And why might it be that their history together is so clearly mapped out by the scars on his body?
Why indeed. By the conventions of the genre, the PSB tends towards the arbitrary, and the movie even makes some quiet humor out of this when Jason Bateman asks if Hancock got his powers because he’s an alien or because he’s a mutant. It couldn’t be a more irrelevent question. But as Hannah Arendt reminds us, recognizing violence as illegitimate is not the same thing as calling it senseless and, more importantly, that calling racism irrational or beyond understanding only tends to deprive us of the tools necessary to understand why it makes sense to the minds that perpetrate it, however warped they might be. After all, if terrorists are like the Joker, impossibly omniscient, inscrutable, and purposeless, then maybe George Bush is right that we have to close our eyes to the rationality by which they direct their lives. But if they aren’t, then maybe violence is not so much arbitrary as it is banal, directed by a rationality we simply find repugnant. And maybe why is actually a good question to ask.
So while Hancock is a fun movie, and I enjoyed the deconstruction of the superhero genre tremendously, I can’t help but let it nag at me a little that the major plot device is a white woman (played by, of all people, a South African actress who grew up under Apartheid) deciding that her relationship with a black man just can’t work, and leaving him behind after the two of them were attacked in 1920’s Miami. What, pray tell, did Florida law have to say about inter-racial marriages in 1928, by the way? And is it important that the movie they were going to see climaxes with a lynch mob? So what do we do with a movie that ultimately resolves this plot point by transforming Hancock from a husband into a public servant, and which hinges this transformation on a de facto enforcement of the legal segregation that those old laws demanded? A movie that separates a black man from his white wife explicitly “for the good of the community?” Not to mention a movie whose moral center is a guy whose main goal in life seems to be the scandalously ineffectual project of corporatizing charity, which is to say, to make African poverty into something that Western corporations can profit from? I ask you.