Jaden Smith's role in 'The Karate Kid' is a refreshing depiction of a black youth
Forty-five minutes into "The Karate Kid," I looked around the theater, wondering if anyone else was marveling.
My 8-year-old son Satchel's eyes were glued to the screen. The story of unlikely friendship and triumph hit familiar notes, but I was seeing something new. Jaden Smith was playing a black boy in three dimensions: vulnerable, contemplative and in possession of a wholly formed interior world.
Maybe you'd have to be a black mother who has never seen her son on screen -- or, more accurately, an image of a black boy who was everything I'd want my son to grow into.
The movie, which was No. 4 in box-office gross heading into the July 4 weekend, stars the son of Hollywood power duo Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, who produced it. I noted the subtleties of Jaden Smith's portrayal from the opening scene. Smith, as 12-year-old Dre Parker, claps hands with a friend who gives him his skateboard as a parting gift when he and his mother move from Detroit to China where her factory job has been relocated.
With his cornrows, pop-lock dance moves and whassup vernacular, Smith has the signposts of urban youth. But there is nothing cartoonishly black about him.
On a recent Friday in Bowie, Herbert and Johanna Bruce took in a showing. Smith's character "faces his fears without compromise, without becoming a thug, and he wasn't trying to be a lover of the honeys," Herbert Bruce said.
Often in popular culture, vulnerability is derided and feminized in boys of all races, and for young black boys, it's especially "clowned," or hyperbolized, for effect. In this movie, Smith's vulnerability is merely human.
"Even in 2010 it is very common to see young African American boys framed in pop culture as aggressive, violent, highly sexualized, I would even say criminalized," said Byron Hurt, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who specializes in black masculinity issues. He recalled an episode of NBC's "Friday Night Lights" that he found "deplorable," with portrayals of black teens that traded in every stock image of black male aggression, street savvy and hypersexuality. A group was teaching a younger black boy to steal cars. Another was a jock who was "over the top maniacal, with no regard for other kids. . . . His whole persona completely centered around his physicality."
White male characters are often given back stories to soften their transgressions, Hurt said. Smith gives his character that same complexity and depth. "You see Jaden's performance and you're stunned [because] most of what you have seen are images that feed into myths, stereotypes and caricatures."
Algernon Mathews, his wife Angela, his son Dante, 11, and daughter Angelica, 9, appreciated Smith's character. "Even when he was getting beat up, he didn't go get a gun," Algernon said. "He stood his ground and asked for help."
By movie's end, when an injured Karate Kid pleads with his friend and teacher Jackie Chan to help him fight his last round, I knew my son was feeling both Dre Parker's fight, and his heart. He's too young to fully engage with pop culture and he hasn't yet seen his fullness erased in all the ways I've seen black boys erased in movies and television.
Afterward, Satchel just said he liked the movie "really, a lot."
I did too, I told him. "Really, a lot."