IN THE 1997 sci-fi movie Men in Black, Will Smith played an ordinary police officer who, subsequent to being secretly watched and examined, is admitted into a "highly funded, yet unofficial government agency," which monitors and polices extraterrestrial activity on earth. What is important about this story, and why I bring it up, is that it stands as the first big-budget or mainstream film to give expression to black paranoia. By black paranoia I mean that brand of fear that is convinced that the U.S. government (and it's always the government, never corporations--corporations have more currency in white paranoia) is constantly watching and listening to black activity.

In Men in Black, our worst fears were realized: The government not only monitors black people but also has the technology to erase the memory of any one of them who happens to discover "the terrible truth." But despite this gloomy realization (which happens early in the film), Men in Black turned out to be nothing more than a happy tour of the government's sophisticated surveillance apparatus. It gave us an opportunity to see and appreciate the gadgets, clothes, and instruments the government employs to watch and control us. After Men in Black, however, the black man would never again be a tourist of state power, but rather its subject and obsession.

In 1998, Will Smith starred in another big-budget hit, Enemy of the State. Like Men in Black, the movie had a secret government agency (NASA) that utilized satellites, minuscule electric bugs, and hidden cameras to observe and track the movements and daily habits of an ordinary black man. The same surveillance story (a black man under the eye of a secret, well-funded government agency) was repeated again this summer by no less than two big-budget films: The Art of War and Bait. Indeed, since Men in Black, Hollywood has spent nearly $200 million on films that explore the uncharted realm of black paranoia.

"But what's the big deal?" you might say. "Black paranoia is not that far from white paranoia. Why, just look at Special Agent Fox William Mulder from The X-Files--he fears that big government, in collusion with an advanced alien civilization, has been secretly watching him since he was a boy." But, I would respond, black paranoia is different from Mulder's in two respects: First, there are no UFO fantasies in black paranoia--the reason being that blacks don't have to imagine a race of powerful space-beings who control and dominate them, because there's a race on earth who already serve that function. Two, the body, the actual physical body, is what is at stake in black paranoia, and not so much the mind. (Mulder's system of paranoia has "mind control" at the center of its spiraling fears.)

When one considers the history of African Americans, it is not hard to understand why the body, indeed the naked and strong black body, is the locus for this form of paranoia. Blacks started their American experience as commodities, their bodies the objects of trade and commerce. And though African Americans have progressed from commodity to consumer status, the legacy of once being a commodity that was bought and sold on the open market resonates not only in this mode of paranoia, but also in the recent crop of conspiracy movies that have black lead actors.

In Enemy of the State, the resonance or reverberation occurs when Will Smith is told by Gene Hackman that everything he is wearing is bugged, and he must strip down to his underpants to debug and free himself. In the Art of War, it occurs when Wesley Snipes discovers an abandoned tracking device that beeps louder and louder as he approaches it. In Bait, it occurs when, due to some weird radio interference, a conversation Jamie Foxx is holding with two thugs is suddenly amplified on the car stereo. In each of these crucial moments--the moment when the black man discovers that he is being watched, and, worst of all, has never made a move in the white world that was not studied, analyzed, and stored on databases by the government--the body suddenly rushes into focus, and we, the passengers of the film, arrive at the planet of the total black body.

There is a moment in Enemy of the State when Jon Voight says, "Let's get into his life," meaning, let's study Will Smith. However, this directive is taken literally in the case of The Art of War and Bait--the state physically opens the black body and implants a monitoring device. And so the black man--who's minding his own business and trying to stay out of trouble--is unaware that his body is betraying him, that it's sending out signals that contain sensitive information.

In the most indicative scene of the state's commitment to total surveillance, in Bait we see a bank of government employees intently listening to Jamie Foxx having loud, black sex. What's worse, the transmitting device is never removed from Jamie's body; thus reinforcing and compounding the core fear of black paranoia: The black body will always be owned and watched by the shadow government.