IN 1997'S MEN IN BLACK, Will Smith played a police officer who, subsequent to being secretly watched, is admitted into a "highly funded, yet unofficial government agency" that monitors extraterrestrial activity on earth. What's important about this story is that it stands as the first mainstream film to give expression to black paranoia; that brand of fear that's convinced the government (always the government, never corporations--corporations have more currency in white paranoia) is constantly watching black activity.

In Men in Black, our worst fears were realized: The government monitors blacks and has the technology to erase the memory of any one of them who discovers "the terrible truth." But despite this gloomy realization, Men in Black turned out to be nothing more than a happy tour of the government's sophisticated surveillance apparatus. 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 Enemy of the State. Like Men in Black, the movie had a government agency (NSA) that utilized satellites, bugs, and hidden cameras to observe and track the movements of an ordinary black man. The same surveillance story was repeated this summer by no less than two big-budget films: The Art of War and Bait. Since Men in Black, Hollywood has spent nearly $200 million on films that explore the uncharted realm of black paranoia.

You might say, "Black paranoia is not far from white paranoia. Look at Mulder from The X-Files--he fears that big government, in collusion with an advanced alien civilization, has been 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--blacks don't have to imagine a race of powerful space-beings who control and dominate them, because there's a race on earth that already serves that function. Second, the actual physical body is at stake in black paranoia, and not so much the mind. (Mulder's paranoia has "mind control" at the center of its fears.)

When one considers the history of African Americans, it is not hard to understand why the body is the locus for this 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 bought and sold on the open market resonates not only in this paranoia, but also in the recent crop of conspiracy movies with black lead actors.

In Enemy of the State, the resonance occurs when Gene Hackman tells Will Smith 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 he is being watched, and, worst of all, has never made a move in the white world that was not studied and stored on government databases--the body rushes into focus and we, the passengers of this film, arrive at the planet of the total black body.

In the scene most indicative of the state's commitment to surveillance, we see in Bait a bank of governmental employees listening to Jamie Foxx (who has a bug in his body!) having loud, black sex. 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.