So, DOMA and other political hullabaloos are starting up some talk of equal rights and we are the world hippie type business. I’m all for it, I mean anything that gets me better pay, less harassment and more hot girls that want to prove their not racist is fine by me. With all this hip hop hooray going on there is still a lot of hate going around. The anger seems to be concentrated on the harbinger of hope, change, and washcloths in the white house. There has been growing criticism of his support or condoning of the NSA’s ability to monitor essentially all forms of communication and keep a copy of the information indefinitely. If you’ve used the phone, internet or a credit card there is a record of it accessible at any time. Orwellian references aside, this isn’t news. We’ve been making movies about it for decades and it’s assumed that anything online lasts forever. The only “news” is that we can now cite specific examples and political reactions to those examples, namely the president’s.
It’s Obama’s second and last term, he’s done with elections and glad-handing, and he has no reason or need to worry about public opinion if he doesn’t want to (except for when he starts making cash from appearances and book signings). What seems troublesome to some is the legacy he will leave behind. “He’s America’s first black president, he’s done so much for civil rights, what will it mean for the future if his presidency is a failure?” The answer is jack shit. Obama was just a product of the strides we’ve made. He wasn’t a shift in America’s views he was just “hey, this is where we’re at now”. The credit for acceptance and improvement of the black population of America belongs to other men or more specifically another man. The Martin Luther King Jr./Rosa Parks/Malcolm X combo pack of a man who single-handedly destroyed color barriers. The man who made white America take notice and say “These people are just like us, we are all the same”. So let’s take a minute and give all the deserved praise to the fresh, the prince, Mr. Will Smith.
Before the Fresh Prince of Bel Air, there were two black sitcom archetypes and two types of black actors. You had your Cosby Show, Sydney Poitier types who were just black people playing white people, and inversely there was the Martin Lawrence, Richard Pryor, Samford and Son types, that made solely for black audiences. Sure there were interactions between colors, Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder, Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop, but these were always popular for two reasons: Black people is crazy, those men are incredible entertainers who made people laugh at horrible situations and black audiences are just happy when anyone of color is on a screen without a tv in their hands or a night stick in their back. The thing is there weren’t a lot of 12-year kids from WASPs saying “man do I wish was Richard Pryor”. In the words of Chris Rock, “None of you would change places with me and I’m rich! That’s how good it is to be white!”
Then out of West Philadelphia came Sir William Freshness Smith. The Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff told white America that we’re black, we’re proud, and we’re willing to pander like fucking crazy. No one wants to hear social commentary on what they’ve done wrong, they want to hear about how parents aren’t understanding, and about how awesome summer is. Of course, you can only do so much with flashy colors and inoffensive hooks (sadly one of the main reasons behind Bootsy Collins not being a US senator). You can win all the Grammies for best rap performance you’d like (seriously “Parents Just Don’t Understand” was the first song to receive a Grammy for rap performance, I’m 95% sure that if “Madea’s Family Reunion” came out in ’89 Tyler Perry would have an oscar.).
Then in 1990, the Justice League of equality (Quincy Jones, Will Smith, Warner Brotha’s and NBC) brought about the Million Man March of network television. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air gave us a protagonist that was unarguably “black” in both appearance and personality, but relatable to white audiences. The entire show basked in equality and originality: we had a black family with wealth that never forgot its roots (Uncle Phil’s work as a judge and his former civil rights activism coupled with sassy Aunt Vivian) and held up the other teenage members of the family as an example of assimilation that allowed Smith to stand out as an individual. The show had many merits but what separated it from shows like Family Matters and umm…. other things that totally must have existed was the charisma. If Smith was in the room; Smith was the room.
Each looks to the camera, each joke, and each pick-up attempt brought all of us in more and more. He was the Sun, the Native Sun, all of us were trapped in his gravitational pull. We weren’t laughing because he was one of us and whites weren’t laughing because he was exotic. We were all laughing because he was what we all wanted to be, a transcendence past race, gender, and inequalities: pure entertainment. Then again he was only a teenager/young adult, and if there is one consistency throughout pop culture it’s that teenagers will find an idol in anything, sure it was groundbreaking but you still have to build something on top of the site for it to mean something, and Will Smith built like John Henry, if John Henry had absorbed the machine.
People will likely point towards Independence Day as the birthing of the star, but it was merely the womb, the gestation of the media messiah that we know today. It may have been a summer blockbuster, it may have been wildly successful, but it was still its own movie. It wasn’t a Will Smith film. It was Goldblum and Smith, with a dash of the Pax, a real team effort of immense entertainment. Independence day gave us an idea, it propositioned us to bring about the 2nd coming of civil rights. and we took that proposition like a 19-year-old co-ed with a daddy complex. Men in Black was our consummation. Tommy Lee Jones may have been a star, but he wasn’t a leading man, he was merely the mentor a Mister Miyagi. Smith was the loveable relatable, but admirable star. Men In Black wasn’t a movie with Will Smith; it was a Will Smith movie the first of the Will Smith Movies. The hallmark of a true star is being more memorable than your character and being able to just play yourself without ever having to act again. After Men In Black, there were no longer movies featuring Smith there were Will Smith movies and he could not fail. He consciously tried to bomb with Wild Wild West, A steampunk remake of a cult tv show where he fights a crippled racist who is trying to take over the country with a mechanical spider, if none of those things make sense to you, congratulations you’re sane, but you also probably saw the movie because even though we all said we hated it, it grossed over 200 million dollars, spawned a #1 single and brought together Eminem and Dr Dre for the first time (this last one has nothing to do with the original point, but I was on Wikipedia and apparently that happened.)
Yep, the Wild Wild West Music Video is also a Short Film and 7 minutes long Will Smith says “You’re Welcome World”
Will Smith became Movies. He could do biopics (Ali), ridiculous and unnecessary sequels(Bad Boys II Men in Black 2 & 3, movies about him being a father starring his own kid (Pursuit of Happyness), and even a movie that is by definition just him (I am Legend). Will Smith arrived to a level of stardom that no other has reached. I, Robot was a movie based on a beloved science fiction novel that no one involved in production read. Will Smith plays a prejudice, Luddite, who gets angry and screams at appliances, while somehow remaining materialistic and we loved it. The best acting in any Will Smith film to date wasn’t even his own, it was Eva Mendes trying to play a woman not interested in Will Smith.
So how does this make him the moon landing of race relations? He erased the color barrier, instead of breaking it. He made the concept of it completely disappear, was he trying to be black, was he trying to be white, or was he trying to be likeable? No, he was just being Will Smith he let us know that you didn’t have to “have a dream” or “Hope” you didn’t have to picket or march. You could just be a human being. America erased color from its minds when Will Smith came on-screen, and this allowed us to realize even if it only lasted for a second and only sunk in on the shallowest of levels that color didn’t matter that we are all equal and all it takes is that one flash of an idea to inspire a nation. So am I saying that Will Smith single-handedly ended racism? Yes, yes I am. Not permanently of course but for those two hours of film a black man who never pandered, never changed his personality, even in a medium where that is the jobs definition, that man-made the world see life as something more than differences and struggle. It was also one-liners, sequels, running after shit, and “rapping” over basically unaltered 70’s hits. So the questions “Who is more important to our views of race and who is more influential: the first black president or Will Smith?” isn’t even worthy of a response. The real question is: Would Obama be president in a world without Smith?