Black to the Future

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In AFTER EARTH and GEMINI MAN, two high-tech, critically maligned sci-fi films, Will Smith embodies a rare kind of Black hero.

By Bliss Fields

“The body" is positioned by historical practices and discourses. The body is codified as this or that in terms of meanings that are sanctioned, scripted and constituted through processes of negotiation that are embedded within and serve various ideological interests that are grounded within further power-laden social processes. The historical plasticity of the body. . .speaks to the historicity of its "being" as lived and meant within the interstices of social semiotics.

—George Yancy, Whiteness and the Return of the Black Body

Looking into the presence of Black people in modern mainstream cinema, it’s difficult to pinpoint performances or significant characters that amount to much beyond the banal quirks of glorified caricatures based on platitudinous conventions of pop culture and gender or ethnic identity. Several of the most prominent Black cultural figures having been stripped from existing properties and scrubbed clean for mass viewership: see, for instance, the celebratory imperialist farce that is Black Panther (2018), with its ridiculous pan-Africanist romanticism and supplementary use of popular hip-hop aesthetics to validate itself as “Black cinema” and not just another asinine superhero flick. There’s also the portentous Afrocentrism of Shaka King’s Judas and the Black Messiah (2021), a film that blatantly commodifies revolutionary antecedents to substantiate its bafflingly tone-deaf capitalistic iconography, reducing history to a scatterbrained feud between good and evil. By contrast, M. Night Shyamalan’s After Earth (2013) and Ang Lee's Gemini Man (2018) refuse such fatuous misrepresentations of Black identity, elevating their Black protagonists to a mythic stature that discombobulates Hollywood race consciousness. The two films position Will Smith, perhaps the most iconic “young Black male superstar” in Hollywood history—at the early stages of his career’s final stretch—opposite younger versions of himself. These come in the moving and uncanny forms of his real-life son in the first film and a younger CGI clone of himself in the second, leading Smith to grapple with his roles as a family man and an aging icon.

In After Earth, Jaden Smith—now a successful hip-hop artist on his own terms, whose documented struggles with child stardom further signify the narratives at hand—plays Kitai Raige, a zealous teen caught between the crushing expectations for him to live up to his father, Cypher (Will), and the guilt of his older sister, who sacrificed her life to save him. The father and son’s tumultuous dynamic reflects Jaden’s chaotic journey through the Hollywood machine under the supervision of his hotshot dad. Gemini Man, on the other hand, employs mass cloning, CGI de-aging, and falsified family histories to serve up a staggering treatise on the state of mass production in Hollywood and the resulting artlessness of today’s mainstream. In a beautiful act of remediation, these films demystify “Blackness” through the modesty with which they characterize their Black male protagonists at the center of two fairly straightforward narratives. Under the boundary-pushing digital lenses of their respective auteurs, these stories are intuitively repurposed to interrogate the very nature of sci-fi blockbusters.

Cinema continues to expand its definitive capabilities as a digital art form, with accelerated advancements in CGI forging an idiom of hyperrealism that suits the dramatic tensions of sci-fi and action-adventure films in ways that we might not have expected. To this day, Ang Lee remains at the forefront of further experimentation with this phenomenon. Whether we’re talking of his earlier works—reserved, poignant dramas of the Taiwanese New Wave and '90s transnational Americana—or his more recent innovations towards a post-Bazinian future with 3D technology, he’s always aimed to revitalize traditional narratives by directly incorporating the delicate craft of his influences into his developing modus operandi. In his last three films—as well as in Hulk's (2003) daring reconfiguration of comic book aesthetics as the cinematic blueprint for its eruptive psychosexual tenets—Lee transforms the digital chaos of modern blockbusters into a more meditative process, concerned with unearthing dormant emotions and exploring a multitude of identity crises, often regarding sexual repression and familial anxieties rooted in globalization. Shyamalan, another titan of aughts U.S. cinema who wears his dramatic influences on his sleeve, similarly engages his otherworldly religious narratives with poised melodrama, adapting the blockbuster’s wide scope as a sensitive outlet for self-discovery. Subjectivity is the focal point within both filmmakers' densely mythological oeuvres: their images are presented in a perpetual state of emotive disembodiment and construction; the questions they ponder reach far beyond the horizons in search of raw, earnest truth. Their eccentric sensibilities appeal for viewers to subdue any critical instincts towards their conspicuous flaws, like the sheer weirdness of their dramaturgy in films like Hulk and The Happening (2008), as well as their tendency to tiptoe around disorganized scripts and underdeveloped arcs, in favor of tapping into that hardboiled connection to the characters and the worlds they inhabit in its purest form.

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