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Bright's Racial Politics Are Confusing, Weird & a Little Disturbing

WARNING: The following article contains spoilers for director David Ayer's Bright, now streaming on Netflix.

No one will ever describe Bright, David Ayer's new urban-fantasy/crime film, as nuanced. The director and writer Max Landis took every trope from high fantasy novels and modern police dramas, and crammed them into one movie. Corrupt cops? Check. Magic wands? Check. Mismatched partners, one of whom has an eye toward retirement? But of course! Snobby, powerful elves? You bet! It's The Lord of the Rings meets The Taking of Pelham 123 meets Training Day (which Ayer wrote), sprinkled with pixie dust and riddled with bullets.

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Starring Will Smith and Joel Edgerton, Bright is set in an alternate modern Los Angeles where humans have co-existed with elves, orcs, dwarves and other fantasy creatures since the beginning of time. Or so we're told; there's little evidence of that, however, as the world-building doesn't extend much beyond the beginnings of a high-concept pitch.

As with innumerable fantasy works released since J.R.R. Tolkien first put pen to paper, the elves exist at the top of the hierarchy, apart from and above the hoi polloi, and the brutish orcs live at the bottom, gathering in gang-like clans preoccupied with "blooding." Anyone searching for a subversion of the genre, fantasy or crime, for that matter, won't find it here. And therein lies one of the problems with Bright.

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Moving past its heavy-handed metaphors -- Edgerton's orc cop Jakoby is maligned as a "diversity hire" by police and shunned by his own people -- and borderline-nonsensical prophecy, there's little about the world of this film that feels as if it grew out of a millennia of shared history. Sure, there's some imaginative graffiti and a federal Magic Task Force, but beyond that, it's difficult to distinguish Bright's Los Angeles from ours. (Few Angelenos would likely blink an eye at a dirty, shirtless guy swinging a sword in the middle on an intersection.)

Countless thousands of years of magic, and magical creatures, apparently hasn't greatly affected the culture, technology or politics of this L.A.: Orcs are the objects of casual prejudice and targeted police brutality, elves shop and work among the gleaming skyscrapers of "Elftown," and fairies -- well, here's where it gets really uncomfortable.

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Early in the film, as Smith's Officer Daryl Ward prepares to return to work after being shot in the line of duty, he's tasked by his wife with removing a pesky fairy buzzing around their bird feeder. "You told me that you killed it," she says with obvious annoyance. "I don't fuck with no fairies," Ward replies before launching into a story about what happened to his cousin DayDay when he ran afoul of one of the little winged creatures, which retaliated by throwing feces in his eye.

Ward loses the argument, leading to the sequence from Bright's trailers, in which he confronts the pixie on the front lawn, to the amusement of his "gangsta" neighbors, and declares, "Fairy lives don't matter today." It's intended to be humorous, of course, but becomes tripped up first by the obvious similarity between Ward's comment and the "Black lives matter" slogan, and then by his actions: He beats the chittering fairy, to death, with a broom, leaving purple blood spattered across the grass and sidewalk.

The exchange isn't likely to leave any viewers traumatized, but it illustrates a lack of consideration given to developing this fantasy landscape. In a world where, as the official synopsis tells us, "humans, orcs, elves and fairies have been co-existing since the beginning of time," not only are orcs still on the low rung of society (yes, we get the racial metaphors), but fairies are beaten to death by homeowners -- a cop, no less -- or exterminated by the city? Bird seed-thieving squirrels receive better treatment, in our world, in any case. They may not stand a chance in Bright's.

Directed by David Ayer from a script by Max Landis, Bright is available now for streaming on Netflix.

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