Even though Smith and Theron are depicted as god-like lovers with 3,000 years of hot, sweet afro-on-white-South-African nookie behind them, Smith knows his place in the racial firmament and gets out of Dodge with the quickness once he learns of their history. Hancock literally moves across the country at film’s close so that Theron and her nebbish-y husband of a mere 10 years can make white babies in peace, their union untroubled by the black lead and what a Wayans character might call his strumph.
If Hancock has a single legit point to make, it’s that it’s often not easy being a black star. But a much more interesting, and less obvious point worth making is that black stardom is very often very strange. Offscreen, Will Smith is a case study in the weirdness of being famous and black. Initially, he burst into the collective consciousness as that nice, gawky kid from Philly, his musical and acting personas as non-threatening as a Charmin commercial bear. Smith has steadily and deliberately charted a course that, while not particularly scary in post-hip-hop terms, suggests an inner life a million times more complicated than either the Fresh Prince or Hancock’s.
From his refusal to take Denzel’s advice that he should pass on the gay-themed Six Degrees of Separation, to his endlessly speculated upon marriage to black boho princess Jada Pinkett Smith, to his recent flirtation with Cruise and Scientology, Smith has grown into a genuinely strange Hollywood figure.
Indeed, the comparison to Smith’s early mentor Washington is instructive. Washington is an infinitely stronger actor than Smith likely ever will be, but he’s also much more conservative figure. Denzel, a private and elusive star, has burrowed so deeply into Los Angeles’ black middle class demi-monde that you would think he was in a bunker.
In contrast to Washington’s reticence and his unwavering devotion to the black “base,” Will and Jada are social explorers and Cruise-style sharers, opening schools designed to reflect their personal worldviews, dishing on details of their personal lives in the tabloids, effusing about leaders like Nelson Mandela to Obama. After pushing the idea that Will and Jada’s marriage was a double-bearding convenience, the Hollywood rumor mill has now decided the pair is swingers, an allegation that, while likely false, nonetheless suggests the role Smith plays in the popular imagination. It is different than what’s called for by Washington’s disciplined, but occasionally boring, off-screen professionalism.
All of those contradictions and woven-together threads suggest that a big-screen biography of Will Smith would be chock full of curious insights and ironies about what it means to be black in both Hollywood and America, the biggest irony, of course, being that they’d have to find someone to play Smith.
As movies like Hancock indicate, the real Will Smith would never take the role; it might ruin his image.
Gary Dauphin is a Los Angeles writer. His blog can be found at ebogjonson.com .