Bright is a lot of things. It’s Netflix’s biggest budget production to date ($90 million, to be exact), it’s an urban fantasy crime cop drama (say that five times fast), and it’s also kind of bad. I say “kind of bad” not because I’m at a loss for words, but because the film is no more, but definitely no less than exactly that. A lot of people thought that Bright was horrible, however, with some even deeming it the worst film of 2017, but was it really that bad? I beg to differ.
Bright had a lot of pros and cons, and the pros are great, but the cons are simply atrocious. In the cons column, Bright was lazily (maybe even intentionally?) marketed in a manner similar to a television series, and that’s honestly what it should have been, the next great Netflix original series. I can’t believe that Landis, or any writer, for that matter, really believed that they could cram a story about Earth and Middle Earth co-habitating into the span of under two hours! The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) trilogy needed 3 movies and about 13 hours just to lay the groundwork for Middle Earth alone! Throw in The Hobbit, and you’ll need the entire weekend! Building a new story off of a preexisting one with almost no effort put into establishing a sound, cohesive backstory is beyond sloppy; it’s forced and sophomoric.
The second major con for serious LOTR fans is the knowledge that Tolkien, like nearly every White male writer of his time, was a racist, and the orcs of Middle Earth are a subspecies that are representative of how he viewed Black people: strong, brutal, inherently evil and savage. In Bright, all humans are essentially treated as White people are in the United States, and all humans, even people of colour (PoC), have united in the racist (specist, if we want to get technical) hatred of the orcs who, just as they were in Tolkien’s classics, are still treated like Black people, and endure a huge amount of system marginalization. Now, this isn’t a problem for me personally, because it’s a much-needed highlight to the glaring racism which Tolkien fans willfully ignore, and it’s also obvious to me that many PoC do not want liberation, but the freedom to be as oppressive as White men are. With orcs being a part of this new world (again, we never learn exactly how this happened), even the most oppressed groups of human beings have someone to feel superior to, and this imagery can also be incredibly uncomfortable to those with issues of perceived inferiority and desire for a seat at the table to unpack.
For me, the biggest con with Bright was the dialogue. It was just, for lack of a better term, woefully lacking. Anyone who’s watched even a fraction of the many films that Will Smith has starred in understands that handsomely corny is kind of his trademark but, like the plot and (lack of) backstory, Bright‘s dialogue is also painfully sloppy and forced, doing the worst thing that any fantasy film can possibly do: constantly reminding the audience that they are watching a fantasy. Bright consistently falls short of bring the audience into the fantasy and instead keeps us on the periphery, much like a spectator sport.
Daryl Ward (Will Smith) is essentially a White man in every way that matters. As aforementioned, every human is, with elves (yeah, they’re here now, too) representing the 1%. On top of having the social standing of a White man, Daryl is also a cop, and it never stops being painfully ironic to hear him and the other cops call the orcs “pigs” and compare them to pigs and boars. Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton), Daryl’s partner, is the world’s first orc cop, and his hated by both his fellow officers, and his fellow orcs, a treatment that not only parallels the issues faced by Black cops, but the Black overseers of the past (not that there’s much of a difference between the two). Jakoby wants so badly to be seen as one of the good guys, to be the token orc, that he endures a battery of verbal and psychological abuse on the police force, silently witnesses the police brutality against his species, and even participates in it.
Jakoby is a house orc, downright neutered to the point of having his most prominent teeth filed down. Jakoby is difficult to watch because his desperate need to be included by those who hate him is reminiscent of too many people whom I have and (sadly) will continue to encounter. But though this is a con, it’s also the biggest pro in the film. Orcs are portrayed in this film just as Black people are in every other cop film, and having Edgerton in the role of a species intended to represent Blackness while Smith engages in active and passive discrimination towards him is deeply ironic, intentional, and nothing short of brilliance. But this brilliance is all too brief.
Ward and the other human officers perfectly exemplify the tribal racism of the average White American male cop, and beautifully display how even the “good ones”, like Ward, can only refrain from undo physical violence, but will continue to espouse violent rhetoric and ideologies which are dangerous to marginalized people. Even when Ward (FINALLY) starts to view Jakoby as a person, he never truly sees him as an equal, and thus continues to use derogatory language to other orcs. Not the orc who’s now, after saving his life multiple times, a “friend”, but all those other “pig-looking motherfuckers” are still fair game. “Jokes” about “fairy lives not mattering today” and “having an orc friend” parallel the deep-seated racism that is America on the whole, and the American police force in particular, and while this would surely make cops and cop supporters incredibly uncomfortable, it’s because oppressors don’t enjoy being confronted with the truth about themselves.
In my case, this truth (as well as the revelation that the ruling class is the real enemy) was the only redeeming aspect of a film with an incredibly convoluted plot. Bright had and still has a lot of potential to be a great series, but as a movie, it was a flop. And part of that was the addition of Smith to the cast. Will Smith is simply too big of a name for a film so hastily thrown together and ill-thought out. I had high hopes for Bright, especially when I saw Noomi Rapace (of What Happened to Monday) on the cast list, but Smith’s big name and a film that fails to measure up to the expectations of that name only made any disappointment felt far more poignant. The most poignant of the disappointments is the fact that, just like in Tolkien’s world, in Bright, Black women simply do not exist. As in Tolkien’s world, everyone of significance is “White” (privileged), and every “Black” person (orc) is a man. Predictable, and sadly so.
Bright is honest in the best ways, and corny, annoying, and myopic in the worst ways. If anything, this film is a lesson to Netflix that a big name cannot carry a small movie, and budget aside, Bright is small and weak. Maybe next time, they’ll consider putting that money into hit shows like The Get Down, or Sense8, or simply choose better scripts. I give this one 3 stars.