While you weren't looking, no doubt tracking the fortunes of the Hope, Will Smith became the world's biggest movie star. With the financial success of his superhero comedy Hancock ($62 million domestic on opening weekend, $190 million in its first full week global), Smith can claim five films that opened at No. 1 on July 4 weekends. Over the last eight years, his performance is even more impressive, Smith-headlined films generating just over $3 billion (and counting) in worldwide ticket sales. That beats Tom Cruise's rough $2.8 billion and Denzel Washington's $1.3 billion over the same period by a couple of blockbuster franchises.
One of the pieces of conventional wisdom regularly thrown at black actors, screenwriters and directors is that their pictures don't have international legs. The worldwide prospects of a film starring a black lead are immediately suspect A black lead in a film about, you know, black people, is viewed as international box office poison. Even Smith's blazing box office tallies this century bear this out, with his weakest films (a relative term with Will) also being his "blackest" as far as subject matter and context were concerned—The Pursuit of Happyness, Bad Boys II and, what is likely Smith's best film, the vastly underrated Ali. If you throw Smith's magic Negro/caddy flick The Legend of Bagger Vance into the "black" bucket, the streak is complete, this by virtue of how well Vance conformed to white fantasies of blackness' twinned ability to serve and transform them.
Smith's rules for how to be a global black superstar, then?
1. Keep it easy and breezy. Heroes must work for the good of the white folks (especially families and romantic pairings) in the movie, often to their own detriment.
2. Don't risk putting off the white folks/foreigners in the audience with an excess of what pundit John McWhorter might derisively describe as "a surfeit of explicitly black presentation." (Unless, like Denzel in Training Day, you are playing a degraded, corrupt cop; then you get an Oscar.)
3. Do not—EVER—make a movie whose subject matter treats or concerns the facts of black life in America in an accurate or illuminated way, this even when said facts are somehow encoded or embedded in the conventions of genre or some other filmmaking trick.
Leaving aside the facts of Smith's most recent film, Hancock's surprisingly poor production values (the digital effects look to be about as good as television's Heroes) and sub-par direction (critic Armond White rightly called Hancock's Peter Berg, 2007's worst director in his review of the film), the new Will Smith outing bears out all these racial points out rather beautifully. This while also managing to be what is perhaps the most racially dishonest major American film of the last 20 years. Purporting to be a feel-good comedy about a superhero with an image problem, Hancock actually has an N-word problem, as in "What do you call a black man with super-powers? An N-word."
Specifically, the film blithely and cannily re-enacts a whole raft of classic white-held stereotypes about the spoiled-but-talented black athlete—those unique and troubling physical specimens who just refuse to live up to their obligations as hero or role model—without ever trying to revise or riff on them. Strong, fast, infantilized and unaware of his own history (think of Hancock as a Michael Vick or Barry Bonds who can fly, basically). Smith is put through a by-the-numbers series of vilifications that any fallen black star would find familiar. The fans hate him even when does good, tabloid TV is on his ass, he's forced into staged public apologies by his white agent (right down to the pledge to get treatment for alcoholism and anger management problems), and he even does a pro-forma stint in jail, Hancock cooling his heels until called back to the big show. Smith who co-produced the film, likely sees a little of himself in Hancock. Although the star has yet to find himself behind a podium, blinking into the flashbulbs and begging for the world's forgiveness.
More telling (and damning) though, is Hancock's sexual politics. (Spoiler alert! Go away if you just can't bear to read about what was obvious from the trailer.) Smith has a love interest in the form of fellow super-being Charlize Theron, but not only do the pair never kiss, their union is depicted as literally both physically and socially dangerous, thereby echoing classic, racist narratives of black-white love where crossing the color line sets off a ticking time bomb. To be sure, Hancock flirts with interracial fantasy—instead of sex, Smith and uber-blonde Theron have a high-flying knock-down-drag-out—but lacking convictions or the courage to carry them out, the film backs off this particular theme big time.
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 .