BRIGHT And The History Of Racialized High-Fantasy

Netflix’s latest is the unfortunate endpoint of a misguided genre tradition.

Last week, Netflix released what they hope to be their next killer app: a gritty urban fantasy in the vein of blockbuster hits like The Last Witch Hunter, I, Frankenstein, and R.I.P.D. With direction from David Ayer (Suicide Squad) and a script from Max Landis (bleghh), Bright deigns to transcend its genre through intricate world-building and clever social commentary.

Naturally, this has gone about as well as one would expect.

Between long stretches of boredom, Bright occasionally had me in awe. How could a film have so much it wants to preach while also being so clumsy with its themes and so tone-deaf in its presentation? Despite all warnings and common sense, Bright takes its premise of magical creatures living with humans in its own world and steadfastly tries to draw parallels to the racism and xenophobia of reality. You’re probably familiar with this song and dance.

Many stories have tried using genre to articulate the struggles faced by Othered groups—most fail, often by inflating its subject’s Otherness to the point of inanity. Bright is no exception, although there’s something especially sinister about its framing. The film asks us to believe that orcs—the largest and strongest of its mythical “races”—are the Other, the oppressed underclass of its fictional Los Angeles. Maybe I just failed to heed the “Trigger Warning” in the film’s opening credits, but the first time a group of orcs was portrayed on screen, I recoiled. Not because I find the orcs particularly grotesque (although the makeup department pulled no punches in recreating the orcs of Peter Jackson’s vision and transposing them to L.A.) but because the orcs were unambiguously coded black.

The chains the orcs wear shine like their sharp teeth, which glint in the light when they taunt police officers with gang signs. Despite being uniformly bald, the creatures decide do-rags are the most optimal way to cover their scars. One orc wears a black hoodie in the midst of a criminal act and the film plays it coldly straight. Through the filter of Bright, the manners and accessories associated with Black urban culture are rendered literally subhuman. I’d sooner expect to see images like these on a far-right propaganda poster than in a $100 million tentpole starring Will Smith.

It shouldn’t be so much of a surprise that a profound miscalculation like this could happen. A faux pas on this scale was inevitable. Bright is simply the culmination of the fantasy genre’s original sin, and I think this warrants some unpacking.

I’m writing this as a Star Trek obsessive and a Tolkien acolyte. I’m fully aware that the racial conventions of sci-fi and fantasy are often quite different from the way we talk about race in the real world. I know well enough that when you have to choose between “races” in D&D and Elder Scrolls, you’re choosing a “species”. Knowing all this—and appreciating the imagination that goes into creating SF-F archetypes like Vulcans, and draenei, and hobbits—does not mean we shouldn’t investigate how these archetypes came to be in the first place. Like many things, the origins of modern fantasy fiction are deeply racist, and genre creators have yet to fully come to terms with this.

Bright, World of Warcraft, Star Trek, Mass Effect, etcetera, are all practitioners of a tradition that started with Tolkien: high fantasy’s continued codification of scientific racism. During the 18th century, philosophers and writers like Carl Linnaeus and Thomas Percy developed taxonomies—largely based on conjecture—which were meant to define irreconcilable differences between humans of different regions. They didn’t stop there; well into the 19th century, European scholars would slot these arbitrary taxonomies into hierarchies, and these determined that white colonizers were superior to their brown victims in vitality and intelligence. This train of thought—which very conveniently reinforced slavery and imperialism—was mainstream all the way to the 20th century where it fueled nationalism, eugenics, and the Holocaust.

That’s right, the confident assertion that there are fundamental differences between races led to widespread war and bloodshed. If that sounds similar to the plot of your favorite high fantasy novel, then congratulations! You’re paying attention.

At the time he was writing, the implications of scientific racism were too well-accepted for Tolkien not to have been influenced by it. It shows in his stories: where the differences between the fantastical “races” are objectively defined in terms of ability, intelligence, and morality, where heroism/villainy is determined partly by the legitimacy of one’s bloodline. This is the template SF-F “races” were born from and the genre has been reckoning with it ever since.

So when a piece of fiction (like say, a Netflix original movie) takes a genre convention where “race” has concrete meaning, and applies it to our world, where race is a social construct, it severely inhibits its ability to tell timely social commentary. Bright’s already starting from a weak position before it goes on to hamstring itself the same way Zootopia did: by constructing a power dynamic for which there is no real-world analogy. The film’s extensive exposition tells us the oppression of the orcs is retribution for the violence their race imparted against the humans a long time ago.

Yeah, okay, sure.

Even though the film fails—by every conceivable metric—to say something substantive about racism, it still potentially could have been a heartfelt (albeit generalized) exercise in empathy, like District 9 or Alien Nation. Those are films which introduce us to alien characters, and use the power of storytelling to convince us of the characters’ utter humanity.

Unfortunately, Bright can’t even do that, because it doesn’t seem convinced itself. The film frames the orcs very matter-of-factly, from a distance, and this framing never changes, so our inherent distaste for the inhuman-looking orcs is never challenged or subverted. Poor Joel Edgerton is pulling all the weight when it comes to making viewers empathize with his character!

Lest I forget, across the duo’s adventures, Edgerton’s orc bears the brunt of the violence. He gets rammed, stabbed, shot, killed, and resurrected, only to be rammed, stabbed, and shot again. At one point during the climax, he even gets lynched (consequence-free, of course). It seems the only way the film knows how to prove its lead orc’s value is through the sheer amount of punishment he takes. Ditto for the lead elves. In terms of sincere affection for its monsters, Bright is no del Toro film.

Bright’s a sloppy movie, to say the least, but its failings in racial allegory lie where the fantasy genre began. I don’t believe it’s impossible to tell these types of stories through genre conventions; fantasy is powerful because of its capacity for allegory. There’s no doubt the genre is in need of rehabilitation though, and I don’t think privileged white men should lead the charge on that.