Will Smith hasn’t had a hit record since 1991’s Summertime, but he revives his former hip-hop persona as the gregarious, rapping Genie in Disney’s new Aladdin, a live-action remake of its 1992 animated hit. Smith can’t avoid culturally jumbled racial stereotyping, but the surprise is how he rescues a misunderstood Hollywood tradition.
What should be a supporting role in the 1001 Arabian Nights tale overtakes the story about Aladdin (Mena Massoud), a Middle Eastern street rascal who subverts the corrupt ruling class and falls in love with Princess Jasmine (Naomi Scott). In this remake, the Genie’s resourcefulness derives from the agency of a contemporary black father narrating the tale to his children (Adam Sandler’s trick in Bedtime Stories). Daddy Smith reappears as the Genie, a fantasy projection of patriarchal friendliness and wit. But he is also a figure of ethnic omnipotence — Smith’s Genie raps some of the original tunes in a revamped, hip-hop-patter style that attests to his showbiz legend.
Smith’s Genie, physically represented through CGI morphing as a superbuff, earring-wearing hunk, has blue skin that recalls the indigenous Na’vi tribe in James Cameron’s Avatar. He’s otherworldly but he is also Other — looming in scale over the merely human characters. (It’s Massoud and Scott, also cast for their ethnicity, who suggest cartoons.) This versatility — part of Disney’s manipulative political correctness — is a showbiz distraction, as was Robin Williams’s whirligig improvisation when voicing the Genie role and inspiring its gimmicky visual representation in 1992.
Williams’s annoyance was part of the first Aladdin’s cultural appropriation. Smith’s Genie, always reliable for a wisecrack, harkens back to previous anthropomorphic depictions of social subservience and alter-ego psyche — from Mark Twain’s Nigger Jim to Jiminy Cricket in Pinocchio and the black crows in Dumbo to Eddie Murphy voicing the serpent in Mulan and the donkey in Shrek, all products of the American romantic imagination. Smith’s alter-ego figure projects authority and confidence — an innocuous bogeyman lurking within the insecure dominant class’s illusion of progress.
It might horrify progressives to realize that Smith’s apparition springs from the same folkloric showbiz as does blackface minstrelsy. Blueface makes the Genie seem much more congenial. Director Guy Ritchie’s hackwork in this musical adventure film performs sleight of hand, moving so fast that his razzle-dazzle (especially during the big “Friend Like Me” production number) blurs any sense of personal ethnic insight. The Arabic characters (even the comic, cornball villainous Marwan Kenzari as Jafar) never signify Islam or bear traits that would alarm any little Ilhan Omars or Rashida Tlaibs at matinees.
The Blueface shtick serves multiple functions — and the best is its nod to tradition. Movie fans will recall Rex Ingram’s magisterial genie in The Thief of Bagdad (1940). His lusty laughter was both frightening and life-affirming. However, Smith’s musical snark is more appeasing, which is usually the case with crossover rap. (Hip-hop fans will notice that the Genie’s bozack is no more than a smoky wisp.)
Still, Smith’s bodacious Genie also reveals teasing, non-threatening knowledge of human nature and temptation. “I can’t make anybody love anybody or bring anybody back from the dead.” he tells Aladdin. This shrewd comic performance is enough to evoke a taboo: Smith’s Genie is, essentially, Uncle Remus.
Smith’s stardom makes it possible for the Millennial market to tolerate the sort of stereotyping exemplified by James Baskette’s Uncle Remus in Disney’s now verboten Song of the South (1947). That original mixture of live action and animation used Joel Chandler Harris’s Br’er Rabbit tales from the post-Reconstruction era to suit Hollywood’s enlightened taste with respect to American society’s changing race relations after World War II. For several generations, Song of the South has been suppressed by p.c. hypocrisy while less congenial black stereotypes outside the Aesop/Uncle Remus African moralizing tradition gained popularity. James Baskette’s performance of the song “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” won him an honorary Oscar decades before the Motion Picture Academy mandated its annual tokenism. His role should be understood as being in the spirit of informed social benevolence, much like Smith’s.
After the live-action Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book, Alice in Wonderland, and Dumbo — all wretched — the Disney corporation is remaking its animated catalogue so fast and foolishly that no one can mistake this Aladdin for a work of imagination. It’s not a movie, it’s a widget. But if Will Smith’s daring to update Uncle Remus as Aladdin’s Genie gets the closed minds of the monopolistic giant finally to rerelease Song of the South, all the other junk might be forgiven.