The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Seven Pounds" (2008)

I have to review this movie twice--once "straight" and once with serious spoilers and a "Sambo" alert. Here comes the first, written as if ethnicity and race are not in any way an issue...


"Seven Pounds" is Will Smith's latest "serious" Christmas offering, and I, for one, liked it a LOT. There are secrets that the filmmakers have worked hard to conceal, and I won't go there. Yet. However, I knew what was going on from pretty much the beginning of the movie, and was mildly surprised that people were all that shocked. Unlike "Sixth Sense" or something, where the revelation at the end absolutely makes the film, "Seven Pounds" was perfectly enjoyable even if your head gets ahead of the plot.

Basically, you have an IRS agent (Smith) with a somewhat mysterious past and/or intent, becoming involved in the lives of several apparently unconnected people. These people are all troubled in one way or another (hell, just getting an IRS visit is trouble enough!) but he seems committed to sussing out their true natures, with largess in mind. There are fractured memories, a strange aquatic pet, odd skill sets and people loaded with what seems unearned emotion. Don't worry: it's all explained. Along the way, Smith displays his constantly evolving acting skills (he has become genuinely impressive) and has a delicately unfolded romance with the astonishingly sexy Rosario Dawson. A movie with quite a bit on its mind...and heart. I give it a "B+".




As some have intimated, yep, Smith and Dawson have a very nice PG-13 love scene. Naturalistic, and I caught VERY little evidence of the usual backing-off I see when black men are juxtaposed with prospective nookie in movies. Considering Smith's gigantic box-office appeal, even considering the odd nature of this movie (it ain't an alien invasion), there is a real chance it will cross that 100-million domestic BO level that I've drawn in the sand. If it does, it's making history.

And not only that, but the naked manipulation, and extraordinarily canny gamesmanship Smith is indulging in is finally clear to me. In "Hitch" he got to have a chaste romance with Eva Mendez by simultaneously helping a geeky white guy get laid. The subconscious message: Smith is sexy, but not a cock-blocker. If you support him, you'll get lucky! The part of the human male mind obsessed with genetic victory was confused enough to kinda say: "aw, fuck it. Let him get a girl."

By "The Pursuit of Happyness" you had Smith accepted in a straight-forward dramatic role (with people commenting about his apparent brilliance. You probably wouldn't be surprised how often I saw people commenting about how he might really be smart enough to work that Rubic's cube. After all, Smith was accepted at MIT...get it? You don't see people asking if Brent Spiner is actually smart enough to be Data. But since Smith actually IS brilliant, maybe it's...sort of believable...need you read between the lines?) But notice that he barely even touched Thandie Newton. Makes me sick.

By "I Am Legend" I think it was obvious to most that Smith COULD cross that line. Hell, he's arguably the biggest movie star in the world. But he didn't get there by being sloppy. He knows the game he's playing. So you have the last man on the world...and he encounters the last woman...and unlike any of the other three versions of the film, he has no sexual interest in her at all. Wow. I would have sworn that our genetic programming would make THAT unlikely as hell. It was like, as soon as a woman appears, he killed himself as quickly as possible. Can't have the audience feeling uncomfortable that he might be about to drop trou!

Then of course "Hancock." Wow. If, like me, you've been watching this shit for thirty years and more, you KNEW that he wasn't going to get any action. Especially when they chose a blonde, South African actress (I mean, really!) to play opposite him. The only question was: how painful was this going to be? And the answer? Plenty. Destroyed the movie for me, it was so glaringly obvious that the writers had jiggered the story (as they have since the original "Bad Boys") to keep Smith from turning off white guys in the audience.


There's an old Cheech and Chong routine. In it, a man takes his wife to a porn film. The woman on the screen is screwed in demeaning ways ("oh, look, Marge! She's gonna do it with the dog!") and the wife wants to leave. Then...a black man shows up on screen. "Oh no!" the (presumably white) guy says. "He's not gonna kiss her with those Mambo lips, is he?" in disgust, he wants to leave...but his wife, turned on, wants to stay and watch.

Just a comedy routine, of course.


Am I being too harsh? I don't think so. I have listened to white males groan in disgust when a black man kisses a woman ("Flight of the Osiris", the Animatrix cartoon), watched them walk out of the theater during love scenes, lean away from the screen when Denzel kisses a woman in the coming attractions for "Mo Better Blues," complain "I don't know why they make crap like that" after "Save the Last Dance" (mild, PG-13 interracial romance) and other things, all around black men getting laid onscreen. After all these years, it's rarely that bad any more, but I can still feel the ripple of unrest in the theater, a COMPLETLY different reaction than the one you get if the male is white.


And in "Seven Pounds" three people left the audience during the love scenes, and this was at a matinee. That was a reasonable percentage of the total audience. Not a good sign. But still...


If Smith gets away with this, this is how he did it: SPOILERS (about "Pounds" and "Benjamin Button". PLEASE--TAKE ME SERIOUSLY AND DON'T READ FURTHER IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW


I warned you.

The secret of the film is that Smith, overwhelmed with guilt for the vehicular death of seven people, is planning to commit suicide, and give organs (and possessions) away to seven deserving people. And at the end, he goes through with it. Now, given this premise, and Smith's past chess-moves, this is how they figured they could get away with him getting laid.

1) He dies. Therefore, although he has sex, he is not a future genetic competitor.

2) He leaves no children behind. Again, no genetic competition (compare, for instance, with "Benjamin Button" which ends with Pitt's death, but he leaves a daughter behind. No tragedy, right? Just live rolling on, even if backwards. Smith's genetic line ENDS.

3) Two white men get brown women. His doctor friend is married to a gorgeous black woman. And Rosario Dawson ends up in an embrace with Woody Harrelson, a former blind man who got Smith's eyes.


And there you have it. In my opinion, Smith figured it out: by addressing the core unconscious issue (genetic competition) without ever discussing it directly, he is working to disarm that ugly little response. He's showing a pathway through the minefield. If "Seven Pounds" succeeds, the next step is a black man gets laid...and survives.

And after that? Well, it will be considerably "normed." People will wonder what all the fuss was about, cluck their tongues and blame "Hollywood" for taking so long to "catch up with the rest of America" (yeah, right...Will Smith is prejudiced against black men) and stick their heads back in the sand.

Oh...and I'll stop flinching so hard when the only black man in the movie or television show is gay.

And my son Jason gets to grow up in a better world than the one I inherited. And by God, I did my part.


Menduir said...

Fascinating review and analysis of the movie. I have two questions/comments, though.

The first is about Will Smith. You said, "In my opinion, Smith figured it out." Does he really have that much power over his movies to be able to plan something like this for years? If he does have that power and used it that way, that's utterly amazing. Or is it a case of: he takes one step, sees how it goes, then takes another step, without a "grand plan" but with a goal in mind? Also, amazing, but for a different reason.

Second, I'm not sure I understand a distinction you're making on two separate issues with a common point. You've said that one of the reasons black males can't (couldn't) have sex in movies that make over 100 million is that white males won't (wouldn't) accept a "genetic competitor". In other words, it is part of human default programming to try to deny the children of "others".
Going back to the issue of those without children not wanting to sacrifice for future generations: since *all* children are the children of "others", is it the same default programming which must be overcome for a different reason? Or is it something else ... a different issue which must be dealt with separately?

I apologize for going back to an old issue. I'm just trying to understand where such attitudes come from in order to figure out how to deal with them when I encounter them.


~ Jas.

Steven Barnes said...

1) I think he makes moves a couple of movies in advance. How many? Can't say. But he certainly takes audience reactions into account, yes.
2)I think these are different things. One is the fear of being outbred (and then exterminated by) the "other." What you're talking about is the sense that "I need not sacrifice for future generations because I have no investment." Certainly there are expansions of the sense of self that would negate both negative mind-sets, but I suspect that stuff is important to group survival, and must be re-set with care.

Joe Berne said...

I'm white, grew up in New York City, and work in an inner city school with an all black student population and a majority black staff. Yet your blog makes me think more about race and racial issues than any other experience of my life. I also share your points with co-workers, white and black, and frequently have them say that you've helped them think about things that they never considered in ways they never would have come to on their own.
I was a fan of your sci fi books for a long time, but I get more out of this blog than I did out of Street Lethal.
Thank you.

Unknown said...

dope review as usual. its funny because you articulate what i am thinking. I feel exactly the same way but just can't find the way to say it. at parties, i am the pooper.

mjholt said...

Fascinating deconstruction. Too true. You got me thinking this snowy Seattle morning about black men on TV. I am old enough to remember 15 minute TV shows. Nat King Cole had one and my mother and I watched it. Then it disappeared. She was a great NKC fan. I remember he saying in caustic disgust, "They took it off because he is black." A few years later in 1962 my grandmother from Kansas visited (the only time she did), and she made me turn off NKC because she couldn't stand seeing the [n-word] on TV. Later I asked my mother about this, and at first she did believe me (that hurt) then she said, (1) "Things change but only if people think about changing them. (2) "That's part of the reason why your father left." We do need to remember this crap, because we have to move beyond it.

BTW, can a heavy woman get laid in the movies in a good romantic way? Or a heavy man? Black, white, or other, I don't think so. I also find the black comics in fat suits insulting. Where's Eddie Murphy in all of this?

Anonymous said...

loved the movie. But yes, same concerns as those you listed in the spoiler. As I told my friend: the ending almost ruined it for me. From the previews I remember thinking that it would have been nice to see a more Brown skinned actress in Rosario's role, BUT I was happy to see the two Brown skinned Sistahs who were gettin some love as well. Will gets a MAJOR pass because he is one of the FEW if not ONLY Black male actor/producers in Hollywood attempting to expand the range of possible identities for Black folk. For that he gets an A+.

I was livid when I read the reviews, most of which disparaged the movie. I'm convinced it's because many of the writers, White males, cannot fathom the idea of intelligent, capable, articulate, and POWERFUL Black men on the big screen. They are much more comfortable with the stereotypical, buffoonish, whoremongering, gangsta, athlete, tragic musicians ...

Nancy Lebovitz said...

BTW, can a heavy woman get laid in the movies in a good romantic way?

I think Last Holiday would count. IIRC, the movie isn't as explicit as some, but the relationship is strongly sexual.

Anonymous said...

off topic
but I just watched the trailer
for Frank Miller's TheSpirit

a movie I will certainly see!

from the trailer
it is every bit as enticing
as Sin City was

Steven Barnes said...

I've been reading bad reviews of "Spirit", which saddens me. I LOVED Eisner's strip.
No, heavy men and women are absolutely not treated as sexually. "Last Holiday" had, if I'm not mistaken, one kiss, in public on a building ledge. The last time I can remember a chubby couple getting it on was in "Knight Riders" by Romero. It was a little bit of a joke, but not totally. And fat suits, yep, the overweight are absolutely being made fun of, no question about it. And Eddie Murphy? He sold out for big bucks a long time ago. After "Boomerang" I thought that we were on the right road. Then something went terribly wrong, and I'm not sure what.

Steven Barnes said...

One interesting thing about "Seven Pounds" reviews is the frequent reference to Smith's gigantic ego, references to how he's the biggest star in the world and has developed a God Complex, etc. What? "Seven Pounds" is about a guilt-ridden emotionally shattered man trying to do a decent, honorable thing (in his mind). I look at reviews like that and think: "is that a code word for `uppity'?" How DARE he suggest that he's entitled to the same range of human emotions as the rest of us. Boy, thank God he didn't star in "Benjamin Button" or the critics would have been howling about "Magical Negroes." Sigh.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

So far as fat people in the movies, it's not just romance. Something I really liked in Wall E was that you saw the captain as a serious person making a serious decision that didn't have anything to do with his weight. Offhand, I can't think of any other fat characters in movies getting scenes like that.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

Eddie Murphy - Not sure when it happened either, but I think not receiveing an Oscar for his role in Dream Girls may have sealed off the possibility of him making any more mature movies. My guess is that his thought process is as follows: I can do the comedies in fats suits and make a done of money, or take more serious roles and not get recognized.

Reluctant Lawyer said...

Nancy - also, in Wall - E, the only emotional relationship between 2 humans was between two fat humans. Although, everyone was fat at that point in human history. Not sure what that means.

Steve Perry said...

The moviemakers were offering a statement: In a world where robots do all the work, people might not be able to find reasons to stay fit.

They are extrapolating from current times, the classic SF questions, "What it?" and "If this goes on ..."

The norms are changing. Today, half the people walking around are over their optimum weight, and that's way up from what it was half a century ago.
A lot of folks who used to do physical labor no longer have to do so, and exercise is no longer a necessity, but an option they don't choose to, well, exercise ...

The rise of the machine ...

Anonymous said...

Wow. Yet another reason to be grateful for growing up Sheltered. Steve, your description of watching people walk out of the theater during the love scene was...chilling. It didn't even cross my mind that people might do that. With my upbringing (flaming liberal town, maybe five (5) black kids in my high school), the closest I ever got to overt racism was watching riots on TV during the 60s. All that kind of thing mostly happened Somewhere Else. I wasn't exposed/indoctrinated with it in any way to make me internalize those attitudes and beliefs, except on the most general level. (For those of you playing at home, my ancestry is, far as I know, entirely northern European.)

'Course, your point about genetic protectionism bears, as well: I'm a genetic dead-end. I've known I was going to be a non-breeder since before I can remember. I can serenly sit back and watch this whole epic play out with Martian detatchment. "Why do they get so excercised about all this?"

It's going to be fascinating to watch how Obama's presidency influences this whole dynamic.