new york times last saturday 16 feb 2013, reports that in the year america gave its black president a second chance, some of hollywood’ s most celebrated films, all by white directors, dealt with black-white race relations or revolved around black characters, which is rare. the pictures above reflect movies that are up for oscars. but before these, there were others written about: hattie mcdaniel, sidney poitier, denzel washington (two), halle berry, jamie foxx, forest whitaker, morgan freeman, louis gossett jr., whoopi goldberg, cuba gooding jr., jennifer hudson, mo’nique and octavia spencer etc.
the same nytimes article by nelson george reports that for the first time in recent memory race is central to several oscar conversations, but that the black character ‘s humanity is hit or miss. according to george, this question raises the age-old question of whether america is ready to give black characters their agency in their own screen lives. and the article suggests that we ask questions like:
* are black characters given a real back story and real world motivations?
* are they agents of their own destiny or just foils for white characters?
* are they too noble or too real?
* are they too ghetto to be flesh and blood?
* do any of these characters point to a way forward?
while these questions reinforce the ongoing hang-up of black vs white, it is also pointing out that while diversity is welcome, difference isn’t really: difference is felt still by a lot of people-who always make it a point to explore/talk about/ mention/differentiate black actors from white actors either covertly or overtly. even in cinema and perhaps especially in cinema when we are in an age of crossing all frontiers, we still see in black and white. but this isn’t what i’d like to delve into. i’d rather like to answer the last question: do any of these characters point to a way forward?
and i’d like to say a resounding yes. the character who points to a way forward is easily will smith. smith dispenses with all these questions posed by george above which keep separating black from white by posing the above questions.
smith is the only american rapper, actor, producer, who can direct, produce and star in his own films, AND he can decide who is in his films, and it could very well be his son, as a recent preview attests to.
the preview of after earth, which will play this summer 2013 shows a real-life father and son literally moving earth. what a delight it was to see!
although he is still quite young, smith has had a very colorful history. in the late 1980s, he achieved modest fame as a rapper under the name the fresh prince. in 1990, his popularity increased dramatically when he starred in the popular television series the fresh prince fo bel-air, which ran for nearly six years (1990–1996) on nbc and has been syndicated consistently on various networks since then. and in the mid-1990s, will smith moved from television to film, and ultimately starred in numerous blockbuster films.
for his long list of awards & nominations, please see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_awards_and_nominations_received_by_Will_Smith
additionally, smith is the only actor to have had eight consecutive films gross over $100 million in the domestic box office and the only one to have eight consecutive films, in which he starred, open at the #1 spot in the domestic box office tally. fourteen of the nineteen fiction films he has acted in have accumulated worldwide gross earnings of over $100 million, and four took in over $500 million in global box office receipts. as of 2011, his films have grossed $5.7 billion in global box office.
it is refreshing and admirable to see any actor doing so well, but delightful to see a black actor surpassing and transcending all boundaries imposed on them by unsuspecting movie critics or film narratives. from sentimental and moving [seven pounds or pursuit of happyness] to sci-fi [after earth, i am legend, i robot, men in black], smith proves his mettle and versatility. what barriers are left for him to tear down given this extensive list of awards, power, talent and global appeal?
i never get the impression that smith is set out to ‘prove’ to the world that he has talent. or that he cannot cross limits because of his color or race or invisibility in cinema. i do get the feeling though that he doesn’t give three hoots about racial barriers ercted long ago in/by cinema. part of his charm and screen presence is not giving a damn but infusing the will-smith brand of comedy, even in the most serious of films. if you see the men in black trilogy you will understand what this comical charm is.
his many films show him to be not only versatile, but especially talented. this is most evident in his role in seven pounds, a role so convincing and well-played that i felt i was seeing an art film, with its reference to shakespeare and paying for his debt with the wages of his own flesh of having caused 7 people to die in a car accident at a moment when he took his eyes off the road. the film offers a beautiful philosophy of life for both adults and children, and the strength he displays to follow through with his plan to give back selflessly to life. the role smith plays in seven pounds shows many closeups of a man constantly torn, constantly wracked by guilt, but who continues to help those most in need at the expense of his won happyness and life. and at times, when he plays his roles so effortlessly you don’t even see that he’s someone of color! you simply see an actor who’s playing his role so well. so why the constant allusion or reminder of black actors being too good or too bad or too ghetto or too noble? they are not invisible anymore!