Over the past eight decades, from Borderline (1930), to Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958), to Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (1991), cinematic interracial couples have encountered violence and death threats, and more often than not the relationship does not survive to the end credits (Ramoutar, 2006). Does this trend continue in more recent portrayals? In Hancock (2008), Will Smith’s title character is a down and out superhero with an acute case of amnesia—he doesn’t remember who he is, or that he used to be in a relationship with Mary (Charlize Theron), the wife of his self-appointed “public relations” agent. As the plot unfolds in increasingly fantastic revelations (spoiler alert), it turns out that Hancock and Mary have been together for centuries, and, most recently, in 1931, were attacked for holding hands in public by an angry anti-miscegenationist mob in Miami. While none of this is shown on screen, apparently when Hancock wakes up in the hospital with a head wound, he has forgotten all about her. Fast-forwarding 80 years, they encounter each other again and exchange a high temperature kiss (popcorn begins to pop when they get close to each other). So it seems that interracial kisses, however brief, are acceptable in twenty-first century cinema, and this feels refreshingly new.
What is painfully familiar is a plot conceit where Hancock and Mary lose their powers (she’s a superhero, too) when they get close to each other. They become mortal and vulnerable when they spend too much time together, and for the two to survive at the film’s conclusion, Hancock, a black man, must get as far away as possible from Mary, a white woman. In addition, the tornadoes and lightning storms that envelop Los Angeles when Hancock and Mary have a fight are not-so-subtle portents of the characters’ rather tempestuous combination. Perhaps Mother Nature, or a higher power, wants to keep them apart? The premise that Hancock and Mary cannot be together for cosmic, preternatural reasons is clearly stated in the film, but implicitly, sociopolitical forces have also wreaked havoc upon their lives over the centuries, and these are very real outside the fictive world of Hancock. But the forces of racism and violence, while alluded to, are never made explicit in the movie’s universe. The fact that Hancock and Mary are interracial means that the writers do not have to bother explaining why this couple has borne the brunt of so much hatred. Placing Will Smith and Charlize Theron in the frame together automatically triggers one of two reactions from audience members: (1) an immediate, empathic response of understanding why they cannot be together (because they are a tragic, transgressive interracial couple that society does not understand), or (2) a response of discomfort or revulsion to seeing a black male and a white female as a couple (having a problem with seeing an interracial couple at all). Thus, the use of interracial couples as trope allows the filmmakers to cover a lot of ground without the need for tedious exposition.
In sum, the film’s implicit messaging about the mortal dangers inherent in interracial coupling, and on-screen solution of a self-imposed racial segregation to the extreme (Hancock at one point flies to the moon, which is far, far away from Mary), feels like familiar territory, and reasserts the old Hollywood logic about interracial couples. So, film depictions of interracial couples continue to provide particular (usually negative) ways of thinking about interracial relationships, and frequently serve to both reassert/reinscribe the principle of homogamy and to reproduce racial borders. The revolution will not be cinematized; at least, not yet.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of Interracial Couples, Intimacy & Therapy: Crossing Racial Borders from Columbia University Press.
Ramoutar, N.A. (2006). The color of love on the big screen: The portrayal of women in Hollywood films of interracial relationships from 1967 to 2005. Dissertation Abstracts International, A: The Humanities and Social Sciences, 67(06), 1963.