I know, I know, I know.
You don’t have to say anything. I realize that writing a piece about “fixing” Will Smith’s career implies that there’s something wrong with Will Smith’s career. And I also realize how ridiculous it is to imply that anything is wrong with Will Smith’s career. I cannot think of anyone—no, seriously, no one—who has had a more charmed teenage and adult life than he has. He’s a legitimate music, TV and movie star who’s made so much money that he lives in a home where the walls can disappear.
He’s married to a beautiful and talented woman who might also be the riding-and-dyingest wife in Hollywood. His kids are from the future. And not like 2018 or something, but the year 22018. Oh, and he’s tall and handsome and smart and funny and adored by seemingly everyone who’s met him. He’s also managed to be in the spotlight for almost three decades without any real scandals, which might be the most impressive part of his résume.
But as Janet Hubert’s rant about Jada Pinkett Smith’s Oscar boycott—a boycott sparked by the lack of recognition received by her husband—continues to make news this week, it has indirectly brought attention back to Will Smith. Namely, his work in Concussion, a movie that received generally lukewarm reviews and featured a performance wherein his Nigerian accent was mocked by actual Nigerians before the movie was even released. And this—the lukewarm reviews and the earnest and dogged but ultimately uninspiring performance—is no surprise to anyone who has followed his career over the last decade-plus, because it’s been a trend.
Although Smith began his career with a very intentional focus on starring in blockbusters, he seems to be fully ensconced in a prestige stage. Movies like Concussion and Seven Pounds and After Earth and The Pursuit of Happyness aren’t produced to make hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re passion projects created to tell stories (which has happened) and win awards (which hasn’t—well, at least not the types of awards he seems to want to win).
Which is unfortunate, because as a person who’s been a fan since “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” I’d like to see him receive that type of recognition, too. I also believe that his movies’ lack of critical acclaim—and the lack of cultural relevancy of these movies and performances—is less due to his being black and more due to some self-imposed limitations. Basically, if he wants to fix his career, he can. Quite easily, actually. And here’s how.
1. Lose control.
Barry Sonnenfeld. Michael Bay. Alex Proyas. Gabriele Muccino. Francis Lawrence. Peter Berg. M. Night Shyamalan. Akiva Goldsman. Glenn Ficarra. John Requa. Peter Landesman.
These are the names of the directors Will Smith has worked with since making Ali with Michael Mann in 2001. While each of these men is undoubtedly talented and successful and (presumably) professional—and, in the case of Bay, Lawrence, Sonnenfeld and Shyamalan, has made some major blockbusters—none of them would be named on any list of the best or most popular or most gifted directors in Hollywood. No Martin Scorseses, no Christopher Nolans, no David Finchers, no Kathryn Bigelows, no Steven Spielbergs, no Coen brothers. You also won’t see the names of any black directors who receive that type of recognition. No Spike Lees, no Ava DuVernays, no Ryan Cooglers, no Steve McQueens. (S—t, you don’t see the names of any black directors at all.)
Basically, for the last decade and a half of Smith’s career, when he’s been on set, he’s been the one with the most creative juice. Instead of fitting himself into a director’s vision of a certain role, he’s shaping the vision and choosing the director who’ll help him achieve it. Which, in theory, seems to be the optimal circumstance for any creative person—to reach a level of status where you have that type of agency and autonomy. But maybe this is holding him back as an actor. Maybe, instead of always driving, he needs to be a part of someone else’s vehicle.
In a way, Smith’s career reminds me of LeBron James’. The parallels between Smith’s success and popularity and James’ success and popularity are obvious. At this point, they could both buy Saturn. And not Saturn the car company. Saturn the planet.
Anyway, if you made a list of the greatest NBA players of the 21st century, six names would stand above the rest: LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan and Kevin Garnett. Each of those players reached his peak while playing under a championship-level coach with a dominant personality and a distinct coaching style. Kobe had Phil Jackson. D. Wade had Pat Riley. Shaq had Jackson and Pat Riley. Tim Duncan has Gregg Popovich. And K.G. had Doc Rivers.
LeBron, however, has never played under that type of coach. And while LeBron is unquestionably and historically great, even his biggest fans (me, for instance) often wonder if he could have been even greater. Maybe so, if he’d been in a situation where he didn’t have as much control as he does now.
2. Stop being Will Smith.
As mentioned before, Will Smith, human citizen, might be the single greatest man on Earth. Unfortunately, Will Smith, human actor, has decided to play practically nothing but slightly different versions of the exact-same person: the Greatest Man on Earth.
In Concussion, Seven Pounds and Pursuit of Happyness, he’s the most principled, the most determined and the most righteous man on Earth. In I, Robot and all the Men in Black movies, he saves the planet. In I Am Legend and After Earth, not only does he save the planet, but he’s literally the only man left on it. In Hancock he plays a superhero who could save Earth if it weren’t for this pesky white woman.
Admittedly, he hasn’t always played the Greatest Man on Earth. But when he veers away from that—as he did in Hitch, Bad Boys and Focus—it’s basically just grown-up versions of the swaggering, cocky, sarcastic and preternaturally cool kid with a heart of gold he played on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The only difference between Will on The Fresh Prince and Alex from Hitch is a blazer and a Blackberry.
But you know what I—and I’m assuming others—would like to see? Will Smith in a movie where he’s not Will Smith. Where he’s morally indifferent. Where he’s an a—hole. Where he’s a sociopath. Where he’s evil. Where the audience roots for him to fail. And I’m not talking cartoon villains. Or just the type of guy who isn’t a fundamentally good guy, or an anti-hero instead of a hero. Instead of seeing him be the one to shed and/or bask in the light, I’d like to see him exist in the dark.
Fortunately, it looks as if at least one of these fixes might be on the horizon. This year he’s set to play Deadshot—a member of the sketchy and morally ambivalent Suicide Squad. This likely won’t receive any Oscar love, but being seen in this type of role might lead him to the role that does. And then Will Smith—the person who already kinda, sorta, has everything—will have … more of everything. But only if he wants to.
Damon Young is the editor-in-chief of VerySmartBrothas.com. He is also a contributing editor at Ebony.com. He lives in Pittsburgh and he really likes pancakes. You can reach him at email@example.com.