(Warning: Spoilers ahead for “Hitman’s Bodyguard”)
“The Hitman’s Bodyguard” is poised to top the box office for the second consecutive weekend, but it is the latest 2017 film to spur questions about whether Hollywood movies are making enough strides away from characters emphasizing racial stereotypes.
Directed by Patrick Hughes, the action-comedy from Lionsgate stars Ryan Reynolds as Michael Bryce, a disgraced security expert tasked with protecting Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), the assassin who previously ruined Bryce’s career. Salma Hayek co-stars as Kincaid’s incarcerated wife.
“The very setup, even from the commercials — I was like, ‘Huh, the good white man charged with this transgressive, badass black dude is troubling — and possibly [there’s] this sexy Latina figure,'” Treva Lindsey, associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at Ohio State University, told TheWrap. “I was just like, ‘Too many tropes and too many stereotypes of blackness.'”
Film critic Guy Lodge tweeted that “Hitman’s Bodyguard” is “entirely hateful: shoddy, exploitative, racist.” Meanwhile, Entertainment Weekly critic Leah Greenblatt wrote that Hayek plays “that freshest of stereotypes, a Latin spitfire.”
Lindsey said that black characters needn’t be “saints or uncomplicated” but that “Hitman’s Bodyguard” trades in “hackneyed and cliched” plot devices. She said of Jackson’s character, “You have someone who is so transgressive that you need whiteness to protect them from themselves or from the harm that would befall them.”
“We’re here again, after a summer in which a movie like ‘Girls Trip’ becomes the highest-grossing comedy thus far this year, and in the year that ‘Atlanta’ wins [the Golden Globe] for best comedy,” she said. “We have these moments of characters written really richly and really beautifully, and ‘Hitman’ seems to be behind that curve. It’s almost like this got greenlit before [studios realized,] ‘Wow, people like complex black characters who aren’t necessarily good, bad or superhuman — just human.'”
This isn’t the first film this year to earn criticism for seemingly dated representations of black characters. In February, “Fist Fight” took flak for centering on Ice Cube playing a hot-headed teacher who wanted to physically fight his by-the-books co-worker, portrayed by Charlie Day.
More recently, director Kathryn Bigelow’s film “Detroit” led to questions about whether a white filmmaker and screenwriter (Mark Boal) were the right fit to tell the story of the city’s 1960s riots.
According to Lindsey, “Detroit” was seen by some viewers as “almost pornographic in the ways in which it depicted violence against black bodies, and insensitive and uncaring and distanced and cold in its depiction of anti-black violence.”
“I do think film in general has a long way to go,” she said. She added that audiences seek “something that hits the notes and ranges that we all exhibit in life and doesn’t rely on these dated, outmoded ideas about race and gender.”
Representatives for Lionsgate and Hughes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.