Bright is an urban fantasy police procedural that tries to combine the best aspects of buddy cop films and urban fantasy narratives in order to tell a pseudo-subversive story about race and racism in a time of Orcs. Unfortunately for director David Ayer and writer/executive producer Max Landis, their attempt at creating what Ayer called “a big fun movie” is largely a mess that relies on poorly crafted allegories for race that can largely be boiled down to “Orcs are the new Black (people)” to drive tension around a paper-thin plot focused on fulfilling a prophecy and battling violent elves, humans, and Orcs who all want to get their hands on a magic wand.
But with a production company named Trigger Warning Entertainment attached to the project, it’s no surprise that Netflix’s Bright provides shallow and truly misguided takes on race and racism throughout its two-hour runtime. Seriously, folks, this movie manages to be incredibly awful about race and racism even though the message that underlies the plot attempts to center on how awful racism is.
The film opens with the camera moving through graffiti-covered streets across Los Angeles while Logic and Rag'n'Bone Man’s “Broken People” plays. The graffiti serves as part of the film’s worldbuilding, but it also does something else: it appropriates a medium that marginalized people of color have used as a way to show affiliation and connection in society.
Graffiti is more than a little paint on a public wall. It’s historically been used as a way for people of color—particularly Black and Latinx taggers from across their respective diasporas—to communicate with and for their communities. In Bright the images of graffiti that they use could essentially count as fan art of existing graffiti when the medium is used as social commentary, as several pieces of graffiti seen in the beginning of the film tackle police brutality and systemic racism towards Orcs in Los Angeles.
The first piece of graffiti seen in Bright shows a bloody Orc skull and the words “In the beginning god created all races equal” (with an edit that says “but elves are more equal”). Another piece shows Orcs as soldiers throughout conflicts (“Orcs fight for you … who fights for us?”) while yet another image shows a female elf taking a selfie with two cops beating down an Orc in the background. Many of the images used in the opening credits focus on the systemic oppression that the Orcs face for being Orcs, or on the Dark Lord, a figure from two thousand years ago whose disciples continue to long for his resurrection.
One piece of graffiti shows a group of Orcs standing in a line with their hands up, and stood out to me as one of the first places where Bright is explicit both in co-opting the struggles of being Black in a place like Los Angeles and in muddling the message of anti-racism. At first glance, the sight immediately reminded me of the way that “Hands up, don’t shoot” was used as a protest slogan following the unlawful execution of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. After all, the film’s previous images of Orcs in graffiti showed the species as violently persecuted by law enforcement, and it seemed to be a theme they’re setting up in the film, so it appears to make sense. However, the letters on the Orc silhouettes don’t spell out an Orcish variant on the protest slogan: they spell out a gang name, Fogteeth.
This is only one of many moments where Bright appears to be aiming to subvert tropes in the genres that make up its hastily stitched-together corpse, only to wind up expiring on the operating table.
Bright’s entire premise is weak and so’s its reliance on an allegory for racism that fuels its major plot points. In Los Angeles, Orcs are at the bottom of the metaphorical food chain, with many members of the species ostracized and subjugated by humans and elves alike. (While there are other supernatural beings around in one-off scenes, they largely don’t figure into Bright’s black and white worldbuilding.) Orcs in LA, who are largely coded as analogous to Black people via clothing, imagery, and behavior, are collectively being punished for choosing the wrong side in a war two thousand years before the film began. Other characters—such as Ike Barinholtz’s Pollard—use the fact that their ancestors slaughtered and were slaughtered by Orcs in Europe during that war as an excuse for their anger.
At no point does Bright actually combat the racism inherent in the assumption that a race deserves to be oppressed for the “crimes” of its past members. In Los Angeles at least, as mentioned above (we only know about the treatment of Orcs there and in Miami, apparently the only places writer Max Landis has ever heard of), Orcs are second-class citizens who live in poor neighborhoods away from humans. Relationships—of any kind—between humans and Orcs are viewed as offensive, and Will Smith’s Daryl Ward is harassed by (white) police officers whom he worked with over having an Orc as his partner (even though Ward has never asked for a partner and other humans refused to work with Ward for reasons that aren’t explained).
With the Orcs, Bright can’t get away from talking about (but not unpacking) respectability politics. The film’s main Orc character, Nick Jakoby (played by Joel Edgerton) is an “unblooded” or clanless Orc who has filed down his tusks and has dreamed of being a police officer since he was a small child—despite the fact that, prior to his joining the force as a “diversity hire,” there have been no Orc cops in the US. The narrative constantly frames Jakoby as a “good Orc” who does his best, and is not to be thought of in the same way as other Orcs who appear to work in service industries when they have jobs and who come together in gangs like Fogteeth when they are unemployed. For much of the film, Jakoby’s neat appearance and his soft-spoken, non-combative nature are also used to separate him from the other Orcs.
Near the end of the film, during a confrontation with Dorghu, the head of the Fogteeth gang, Jakoby is subject to commentary on his childhood and the very respectability politics that Bright attempts to reinforce. Dorghu tells the Orcs surrounding them that Jakoby was: “An unblooded Orc. Grew up with humans. Never had a hand raised for him in respect.” Dorghu accuses Jakoby of “playing the nice guy,” and in the context of the film, he’s right. Jakoby is a respectable Orc. He has a good job working as a police officer—one of the largest forces for oppression in the film—and he goes out of his way to be seen as non-threatening. He’s so desperate to be seen as a good guy that he would rather die as a cop (as a hero) than live as “just” an Orc:
Jacoby: I'm not a cop after tonight, am I?
Ward: No. Neither am I. I think we should probably spend our time—just trying to survive this shit.
Jacoby: Survive? Being a cop is all I've got. Right now I'm still a cop, and if I die tonight, I'll be a cop forever. I'll be a ... I'll be a hero forever.
Ward: Why the fuck do you wanna die for a world that doesn't give a shit about you?
Jacoby: Orcs chose the wrong side a long time ago and they've been paying for it ever since. You know, when an Orc sees me ... they see a man ... a wannabe human. When humans see me, they see an animal. They hate me.
Why does Jacoby want so desperately to belong to a community (multiple communities, technically) that don’t want anything to do with him? His drive to be seen as respectable and therefore acceptable to dominant powers (humans and elves) is what fuels his desperate desire to be accepted by the police force rather than his own people. This recalls James Baldwin, who writes in The Devil Finds Work that:
Blacks know something about black cops, too, even those called Mister, in Philadelphia. They know that their presence on the force doesn’t change the force or the judges or the lawyers or the bondsmen or the jails. [...] They know how much the black cop has to prove, and how limited are his means of proving it: where I grew up, black cops were yet more terrifying than white ones.
As the only Orc police officer in the United States, Jakoby has much to prove to the world which is observing his presence intently, and which sees him as inherently dangerous. Jakoby’s need to be the acceptable Other for humans requires him to become complicit in violence towards his own people. He does this by ignoring instances of police brutality and avoiding being seen as one of “those Orcs” by the people around him. On their way to arrest a man waving a sword in the middle of the street, Jakoby and Ward drive through a neighborhood and witness human cops beating Orcs in a very clear act of police brutality. Ward demands that Jakoby choose between his race and his job.
The narrative makes Jakoby the awkwardly funny member of the duo, the Black (-coded) partner in an interracial buddy cop movie. In some ways, Bright is like alternate universe fan fiction for In The Heat of the Night where Jakoby is basically in the role of Sidney Poitier’s Virgil Tibbs (the first significant Black cop in US media history) while his partner, Daryl Ward, is basically a modern (Black) version of Gillespie, a cop who is racist towards a Black character, but learns to appreciate the Other’s difference and see his humanity by the end of the film.
What exactly is so subversive about Ayer and Landis regurgitating the established interracial buddy cop dynamic that has existed in film for years? They don’t bother to dig a little deeper, to have Jakoby rely on himself (be himself) in order to gain a foothold in a world that doesn’t want him. They don’t subvert the tropes present in those films. Beyond the supernatural slant, Bright adds nothing to the genres that comprise it. All it does is replicate and reinforce tropes in the genre that have existed for decades.
Historically, fantasy creators and fans have gravitated towards Orcs as one of many handy in-universe stand-ins for people of color that appear in fantasy series. J. R. R. Tolkien’s own description of Orcs (Letter #210) reaffirms the species as a racialized Other both in and out of his own series’ context. He writes that:
The Orcs are definitely stated to be corruptions of the “human” form seen in Elves and Men. They are (or were) squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact, degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol types.
While Tolkien modeled his Orcs after racist depictions of an Asian ethnic group, Bright moves to code the Orcs as analogous to Black and Mexican people in several ways, all stereotypical. Orcs in Bright are largely seen wearing sports jerseys with their gang name plastered on the back of them. They also wear oversized shirts and sagging jeans. A recurring racial slur for them—one that Will Smith’s character uses repeatedly—focuses on their facial features. They’re assumed to be inherently violent, especially where sexual violence is concerned. A police officer—a woman of color at that—asks Jacoby if an Orc they’re looking for because of sexual battery is his cousin and then settles back, smug as he appears to become visibly uncomfortable with her comment.
Once again, Jakoby is the only Orc shown to be without an inherent criminality. He’s the only Orc who is seen with a job—one that isn’t in service to humans or Orcs, that is—and yet he’s consistently subject to all kinds of racism from the world around him.
I’ve seen a few people actively defend Bright as a film that teaches its audience that racism is bad, a sort of learning exercise for racists who will apparently forget their racism once they see Will Smith’s character learn the error of his actions towards Orcs. But one thing that has stuck with me through repeated viewings of Bright is the fact is that the film uses racism as a pin in its worldbuilding, but does nothing about racism. Not only is the premise of Bright’s worldbuilding weak; it does nothing to explain anyone else’s history or the history of racism against Orcs and against humans of color across the world they live in. Aside from a mention of Miami (described as a place where blooded Orcs live in close contact with humans and are all a connected community), we know only know about how LA Orcs are treated.
Multiple characters of color are racist to and/or about Orcs in Bright, including Will Smith’s character (who only makes a token defense of Orcs early on in the film when he asks his fellow officers how they can have beef with an entire race over something that happened so long ago). What does that say about the history of people of color in the United States? Did slavery and the Civil Rights movement just … not happen? Highly doubtful, but it’s not like Landis and Ayer give any explanation for the way Orcs are treated or why race clearly doesn’t factor into Smith’s character beyond the guy playing him. One of the biggest problems that fantasy worlds have when using allegories for race and racism instead of simply having characters of color deal with them is that these stories never know what to do about the characters of color who are simply just humans. Law enforcement is a profession that is notoriously hostile to people of color—even when they’re cops themselves. So why is none of that taken into consideration?
While human race is largely a non-issue in Bright, there are some attempts to remind the audience that people of color exist in this world as people of color and these usually take the form of dialogue. This is just … messy. At several points I had to pause and go back a few seconds because the dialogue given to Black and Latino characters characters was so poorly conceived that I needed to make sure I wasn’t hearing things.
At the start of the film, when Ward goes out to take out a fairy fluttering around a birdfeeder, his neighbor Mike (who conveniently has a yardful of other Black people) goes: “Hey, y'all, I want y'all to trip off my police-ass neighbor. He's a trip.” Later, Ward tells these same neighbors “Don't worry about me. Just Crip-walk your asses on back to the barbecue.” Of course, there’s no one way for Black people to speak. However, that line of dialogue straight up isn’t how Black people talk. Even if Landis doesn’t really interact with Black people unless he’s cast them in his film or they’re taking his order somewhere, he probably has access to a Netflix account. How hard could it have been for him to watch something by and about Black people in order to get the dialogue to sound right?
Then there’s the way this movie treats Latinx characters (who are primarily of Mexican descent). Jay Hernandez plays Sheriff Deputy Rodriguez, no first name necessary. He makes about one and a half appearances before being killed off by Bright’s big bad and in his first bit of screentime, there’s a joke about how he and his wife are having their “zillionth” baby (you know, because jokes about how Mexicans have a lot of kids somehow stop being racist if you have a Black guy say them). One line of dialogue that he’s gifted with is literally “Gang intel said Fogteeth's been smashing like a motherfucker, and Altamira's gangbanging like it's 1999.”
Again, who talks like that?
The only other Latinx characters with significant screentime belong to the aforementioned Altamira gang, led by Enrique Murciano’s Poison, a man in a wheelchair who only wants the wand that Jacoby and Ward come across early on in the film so that he can walk and make love to his woman again (because this film needed an ableist component in addition to all its racism). All of the Altamira (including a family that has a baby) are apparently slaughtered by the film’s big bad, but before that happens, we’re subject to a heavily accented mix of Spanish and English. Which in and of itself wouldn’t be a problem if not for the fact that Bright’s Latinx characters, aside from Sheriff Deputy Rodriguez, weren’t all stereotypical in other ways.
Look, there are multiple things that make Bright a bad movie (the shoddy worldbuilding, the fact that this feels like we’ve been dropped in mid-story, the Dark Lord bits), but the racism that seems to make up the film’s circulatory system is the biggest issue. Even if I ignore the fact that one of Will Smith’s earliest lines in the film is him telling a group of Black extras that “Fairy lives don’t matter today,” there’s no getting around the fact Bright is a messy, bloated movie that doesn’t know what it wants to say about race and racism or how it wants to say those things. Maybe Landis should figure out how to write about race and racism in our current world before he tackles a heavy-handed allegory for race that grabs at Blackness to make its commentary.