Meet Will Smith, the racist
Will Smith is not in Get Out. An ambitious horror film about slavery, it has unanimously wowed critics while punching dramatically above its box office weight. Directed by Jordan Peele and starring Daniel Kaluuya, it is about a young black man going to meet his white girlfriend’s family, and the racism he faces is, brilliantly, amped up to full-blooded horror. It is scathing and savage and stunning. It was, however, while I watched this African-American protagonist wade through hostile white waters — a premise most iconically explored in Stanley Kramer’s 1967 classic Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner, starring Sidney Poitier — that I was reminded of a 1993 film where a suave youngster pretends to be Poitier’s son.
In Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees Of Separation, Smith’s breakout performance, he plays the silkiest of characters, an overwhelmingly sharp and well-spoken confidence trickster. He meticulously crafts a persona merely to break into wealthy white society, and it is this relentless scrutiny toward the black man that Get Out satirizes as well. In a Mumbai hotel on a Monday afternoon, Smith smiles wide when I bring up Six Degrees in relation to Get Out, a film we rave about before we discuss Smith’s latest, Bright, where he plays a racist policeman. It is a smile we know well. At 49, Smith has spent close to three decades flashing it at us from billboards and oversized screens. He is the only actor to have eleven consecutive films earn over $150 million internationally, and his new film is the most expensive Netflix has ever made.
“The elixir is always comedy,” Smith elaborates on choices like Six Degrees and Bright, David Ayer’s buddy-cop action fantasy that happens to be a race parable. “If people are laughing, you can put anything in terms of theme and social ideas; any message, or any idea. If people are laughing, it goes down so easy. Versus the more seriously you take yourself, the more difficult it is to make it heard.” Hollywood is clearly listening. Entertaining films across genres are increasingly — and unflinchingly — tackling issues like race and the politics of identity. “That’s why Get Out was such a huge moment,” says the Australian actor Joel Edgerton, who plays an Orc in the new film, equal parts good cop and goblin. “Because you could make another Mississippi Burning, but 50 people would watch it.”
On the other hand, Bright has Will Smith slaughter a fairy. The film is a fantasy, certainly, and this is a comedic moment where the flying creature is clearly more pest and less Tinkerbell, but to hear Smith exult in his genetic superiority is surreal, especially as he yells “Fairy lives don’t matter today!” — a bizarre but undeniably loaded line — while neighbours cheer him on. “Flipping that social dynamic was informative,” explains Smith about playing a blatant racist for the first time in his career. “One of the ideas that came through was that all of the isms — racism, sexism, nationalism — are a result of our craving for comparative superiority. I could see and I could feel how racism comes from fear and from insecurity, and from ignorance. I never saw it from that perspective before. I always saw it from the perspective of evil. Sometimes it is evil, when it crosses a line, but ignorance and evil are like twin brothers. You can’t tell which is which sometimes.”
“In 2017 you’re living in America, and racism is very much alive,” says Edgerton about playing a downtrodden and discriminated character, “And yet in most corners of society it’s not cool to be racist, so you hide your racism and it comes out in subtle ways. Whereas my first thought when I read this [script] was that I could imagine being the first African-American cop in a Southern state in the Fifties.” Smith giggles and says he, meanwhile, was channeling his “inner Nick Nolte,” referring to the grouch Nolte played opposite an irrepressible Eddie Murphy in Walter Hill’s 48 Hrs, the 1982 buddy-cop movie that singlehandedly — okay, double-handedly — started the genre.
Smith — who has a booming laugh he deploys frequently, even in service of his own jokes — is known for his charm and cheek. His take on the genre, most notably in the Men In Black films, sees him as the eager junior, whereas Bright casts him as the soured and scowling senior. “You know, grumpy is funny to me. Like in Hancock, I had a little bit of a grumpy character. That sort of rude, harsh meanness — I’m good at that but I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to do that in my career, but I love it.” He also loves that Netflix is backing an R-rated movie and letting him swear. Back when Smith used to rap, he singled himself out as a committedly non-profane performer. “Do me a favour, write a verse without a curse,” he’d sung in challenge to other rappers in the song Freakin It, but that was 17 years ago. Both Smith, who has seen his box office dwindle in recent years, and the world as we know it, may feel the need to be more brusque.
Get Out. Dear White People. Django Unchained. Infamous. Stories about race can be nuanced and wonderful things, forcing us to confront the subject in new and provocative ways. Bright is, unfortunately, too simplistic and too heavy-handed, not to mention dull. As a film about an Orc who just really, really wants to be a police officer, it feels like a dreary and colourless version of Disney’s Zootopia, a joyous film about race featuring a bunny who really, really wants to be a police officer. “Just wanting to be accepted on merit,” agrees Edgerton, “rather than the skin suit that you’ve been born into.” “Wow,” laughs Smith uproariously, now struck by the resemblance between the films. “Just wow. That’s crazy.” This particular film may not mark his shiniest hour, but that grand laugh rings out loud and infectious and wonderful. Long may Will Smith guffaw. The prince is still fresh.
Bright will be streaming on Netflix starting December 22.