Netflix’s ‘Bright’ is copaganda, plain and simple
These types of narrative outcomes occur when police, media, and Hollywood filmmakers prioritize the interpersonal over the systemic.
By Ronnie Boyd
Over the holidays, I rushed to watch Netflix’s new original film, Bright, starring the always scrumptious (at least, to me) Will Smith. I went into the film wanting to like it, but knowing there was a high likelihood that I wouldn’t. Even with this awareness, I wasn’t prepared for just how much the film would feed my growing pessimism about Hollywood and its inability to accurately capture systemic racist violence.
According to Netflix, Bright is a film about:
“An alternate present day, [where] humans, orcs, elves and fairies have been coexisting since the beginning of time. Two police officers, one a human, the other an orc, embark on a routine night patrol that will alter the future of their world as they know it. Battling both their own personal differences as well as an onslaught of enemies, they must work together to protect a young female elf and a thought-to-be-forgotten relic, which, in the wrong hands, could destroy everything.”
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As an avid science fiction fan, of both film and television, I can confidently say that this story has been told before (and better). A common feature of science fiction and fantasy is to use alien/A.I. and human conflict as a stand-in for current racial, economic, and gender tensions. See: Blade Runner, District 9, and Planet of the Apes for examples. Among this pool of well-written and well-produced films with a similar message, Bright is already in over its head. What does give Bright a unique appeal, however, is its focus on police.
Given the growing Black Lives Matter movement organizing against police violence and the racist targeting of Black folx, it’s no surprise that Hollywood jumped at the opportunity to produce yet another film attempting to address and solve racial tensions, and failed miserably. Stories of Black folx being shot, murdered, sexually assaulted, and harassed by the police have flooded the airwaves since Black folx started building power to draw public attention. Since then, police departments across the country have worked hard to redirect our attention. One of their strategies is “copaganda.”
Writer Adam Johnson from Alternet defines “copaganda” as “any news story that critically advances a police department’s image or helps to undermine reform efforts.” For example, when a Black person is killed by police, their department’s PR representative quickly finds any dirt on the victim and/or create lies to smear them. This is designed to distract the public.
When there is a massive protest against police violence and the image that goes viral the next day is of a Black boy hugging a police officer, this is designed to be a distraction. Media outlets often take the word of the police as fact and position the story as “balanced” by sharing the police narrative against the experiences of witnesses and family members.
In recent years, television and film seem to have become extensions of media copaganda. Movies like Zootopia, which sought to question racial profiling, also, sent children the message that anyone can be a cop and that policing is a public service designed to protect everyone. There is much evidence to the contrary. Television series like Scandal, Law and Order: SVU, and Major Crimes depict copagandic narratives like “trust the system” and “not all cops.” While other shows like Chicago PD, Blue Bloods, and Rookie Blue outright applaud police. Bright fits in as a film seeking to solve the problem of police violence by misinterpreting the problem itself and, thus, providing an ineffective solution and even more problems.
Although, BLM organizers and activists are very clear about who (law enforcement) and what (systemic anti-Blackness and criminalization) the problem is, Bright’s writer, Max Landis, decided to frame the interspecies conflict as an interpersonal misunderstanding, with elves and fairies mixed in for dramatic effect.
Ward (Will Smith), a human cop, is forced to partner with a rookie Orc cop named Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) to fully exploit Landis’ interpersonal interspecies conflict and racial allegory narrative. In this alternate universe, the only beings allowed to be cops are humans. However, Jakoby is brought on as a “diversity hire” to help the police department with its image. Not only does Ward disregard non-human beings – as evidenced by his murder of a fairy on his lawn within the first five minutes of the film (with a bonus “Fairy lives don’t matter today!” line, delivered in that class Will Smith way), but he also distrusts Jakoby.
Ward believes Jakoby’s previous actions of allowing an Orc suspect to get away from police pursuit led to Ward being injured on the job. Thus, Jakoby is subjected to racist (or, speciesist) bullying by other officers without any support from his partner. All the while, Jakoby chooses to simply suck it up, believing he will prove that he is not like the other Orcs by becoming a loyal cop.
I see at least three distinct problems with this storyline: 1) It sends the message that cops are and must not have any other loyalties, but to other cops. It’s as though the act of putting on a uniform de-races, de-genders, and de-classes a person. 2) Diversifying police departments has been heavily criticized with no concrete evidence proving its effectiveness. 3) It seems to posit that racism can be justified and forgiven.
Although we learn that Jakoby’s actions were benign when he helped an innocent Orc escape, without this context, Ward comes off as a bonafide racist who hates Orcs simply because they are Orcs. When the truth of what happened is revealed, Ward then becomes a hurt man whose anger was simply misdirected, rather than already deeply-embedded. This characterization allows the audience to identify with Ward and afford him more compassion and understanding.
What this also does is reinforce the copagandic strategy of connecting a cop’s racism to their fear of an on-the-job injury or death. In the real world, when a police officer kills a Black person, the common defense from the officer is, “I was afraid for my life.” This response is then treated by police, media, and the public as a justifiable reason for killing a Black person. The cop’s fear is immediately seen as valid and goes unquestioned.
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By focusing on the interpersonal rather than the systemic, Bright omits the ways in which Orcs as a group are subjected to violence by the state. Somehow, Ward and Jakoby’s reconciliation is supposed to function – in a narrative sense – as a reconciliation between the races/species. However, the film ends with a police cover up protecting not just Ward and Jakoby, but the very police department that wanted to murder Jakoby in the first place. These types of narrative outcomes occur when police, media, and Hollywood filmmakers prioritize the interpersonal over the systemic.
Copaganda shields the truth and fools the folks willing to believe it into seeing themselves as rational, critical thinkers, when all they are really doing is looking for reasons to deny reality and their complicity in state violence.
Ronnie Boyd is a Black queer feminist residing in Chicago, IL. By day, you can find her practicing her latte art at a local coffeeshop. By night, she’s working to end police violence and to lift up Black-affirming educational institutions. Ronnie writes to feed her soul and to calm her mind. When not covered in coffee grinds and ink stains, you can find her rewatching Battlestar Galactica for the 45th time. Follow her on Twitter at @HarrietTubelman