I got a hypochondriac flow that get real ill, get nauseous to the beat, I spit sick at will.

Will Smith’s Next Steps

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

Photo Credit: Max Vadukul for Esquire Magazine

It was perhaps inevitable that in promoting his new film, Focus, that Will Smith would have to address the relative failure of his last film, After Earth.

I don’t think anyone who has followed Will Smith’s career or grew up watching his work would be surprised that he conflates commerce with art.

I got reinvigorated after the failure of After Earth. I stopped working for a year and a half. I had to dive into why it was so important for me to have number-one movies. And I never would have looked at myself in that way. I was a guy who, when I was fifteen my girlfriend cheated on me, and I decided that if I was number one, no woman would ever cheat on me. All I have to do is make sure that no one’s ever better than me and I’ll have the love that my heart yearns for. And I never released that and moved into a mature way of looking at the world and my artistry and love until the failure of After Earth, when I had to accept that it’s not a good source of creation.

But I think what is most striking about Will’s newfound perspective on his career is that he fails to acknowledge that he’d sort of already begun the process of complicating his public image and making strange choices before After EarthHancock and I Am Legend were blockbusters, but they were also deeply subversive films that complicated (if imperfectly) the “Big Willie” persona. Seven Pounds, also a relative failure, marked the first instance of some of the weird philosophies that Will reportedly appreciates in real life showing up in his films.

After Earth, then, was just the culmination of a series of increasingly odd choices for a movie star that most people enjoyed seeing in limited ways. It was a low-concept family story at odds with its ill-conceived high-concept trappings. It was a Jaden Smith movie with Will in a clear supporting role that arrived at just the moment that the Smiths as public figures were becoming the focus of ridicule, ire, and amusement. The film’s quasi-philosophical subtext only exacerbated this.

I think the film didn’t work totally, but got a raw deal (the central relationship was sensitively and capably etched) as often happens when major movie stars make imperfect films that fail to make the money they were “supposed” to make. But it’s important to state that Will Smith took a chance that Americans would come out to see a major sci-fi motion picture with a Black family at the center. That, to me, is an admirable move for an actor at his level whose appeal was based on the silly notion that he’d transcended race.

So what does that mean for what Will will do next? I think it’s probably likely that his idea of “dangerous” choices going forward could be less dangerous than what he might be suggesting.

Right now, it seems like more of the same: big movies, movie star charisma. Focus is the opening salvo, but the previews suggest the film relies mostly on Will’s charm and Margot Robbie’s baffling “It Girl” status. It’s too soon to tell on that front, but a dangerous choice might have been to push for a black woman to play Robbie’s role. Suicide Squad is a risk only in the sense that fanboys and fangirls are waiting to unleash their claws on Warner Bros’ bizarre handling of DC Comics properties.

I’d like to see him play a bad guy in a way that forces him to go beyond mere charm. Speaking of charm, I’d like to see it put it to good use in a black romantic dramedy with someone like Regina Hall, who could match him in dramatic and comedic acting. I’d like to see him do something small like Seven Pounds and The Pursuit of Happyness that wasn’t so consumed with deracinated characterization. I’d like to see him throw his still-considerable weight behind other black filmmakers.

And I’d hope that the relative failure of After Earth doesn’t put him off of black sci-fi films. We still need someone to produce an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due story.



Posted on February 15th, 2015 - Filed under Film

My 13 Favorite Pop Culture Moments of 2013

I don’t have a long preamble for this. This list is just my way of trying to pull together a lot of disparate pop culture moments that struck me in some profound way during the year. I think the more you engage with pop culture the more it can feel like you’re always having the same conversations, with the same people, in the same way. So when something disrupts that monotony, frustrates the dominant ways we think and talk about our relationship to one another, I think it’s important.

Here are the 13 moments this year that made me sit up and look at the world just a little bit differently.

 



Posted on December 31st, 2013 - Filed under Best of 2013,Culture,Film,Music,Television
Tags :: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Portrait of a (Black) Man: Reviewing ‘Fruitvale Station’

Fruitvale poster

“Seen as animals, brutes, natural born rapists, and murderers, Black men have had no real dramatic say when it comes to the way they are represented. They have made few interventions on the stereotype…Black males who refuse categorization are rare, for the price of visibility in the contemporary world of White supremacy is that Black male identity be defined in relation to the stereotype whether by embodying it or seeking to be other than it.”
–bell hooks

There’s a scene late in Fruitvale Station that is about as astute and subtle a depiction of the disparities between white men and black men in America as I’ve ever seen in a major motion picture.

Oscar (played magnificently by the phenomenally talented Michael B. Jordan) is standing outside a store waiting for his girlfriend, Sophina (beautifully portrayed by Melonie Diaz), and her friend to come out of the bathroom. He had just sufficiently charmed the owner into letting the two women go in when a white couple appears. The wife is pregnant and needs to use the bathroom too. The owner lets her in as well, begrudgingly, leaving Oscar standing outside with the husband. The two have a casual conversation that serves three purposes: one, to let the audience know that Oscar has been seriously considering asking Sophina to marry him; two, to remind us again how charming and at ease Oscar is with all kinds of people (remember – he also charmed the young white woman who didn’t know what fish to fry), and three – and most notably – to underline just how much harder it is for black people, black men in particular, to get their lives together than it is for white folks.

And yet, this is what the film really leaves us with, what it’s really about: A young brother who is just trying to get it together. We have spent the bulk of the movie watching Oscar fumble about trying to sort out his life. We watch him trying, by turns, begging and threatening, to get his job at a grocery store back. We watch him contemplate going back to dealing drugs. We watch him argue and seduce Sophina, charm and spoil his mother for her birthday, bail his sister out of her own money troubles, and perhaps most poignantly, dote on the one thing in his life that makes total and complete sense to him – his daughter. The struggle is real, specific. We care.

After a trying day, Oscar then gets to listen to this white man talk so casually about marrying his wife when they had “nothing” and then starting a business that is apparently doing well enough that he hands Oscar a card. Jordan’s reaction – a remarkable combination of respect, admiration and, just a touch of jealousy – says all we need to know. For this white man, things come so easily. In Jordan’s performance in that moment, we are reminded again that it’s just not as easy for a brothers like Oscar to get their lives together.



Posted on July 23rd, 2013 - Filed under Film
Tags :: , , , , , ,

On J. August Richards’ Webseries, ‘The Hypnotist': Black People and Science Fiction

I’m struck by the fact that the great J. August Richards is developing a sci-fi webseries, The Hypnotist, featuring black people that seems to center blackness.

“…African hypnosis. It was essentially lost during the slave trade, but goes back thousands of years.”

I’ve had many a conversation about why it is so uncommon for Black folks who have money to explore science fiction; and how this limits the kinds of stories that black people have access to and how it limits black people’s ability to see themselves as expansively as they could. There has yet to be an adaptation of an Octavia Butler or Tananarive Due novel and yet we make a fair number of romantic comedies, comedies centered around a black comedian, hood tales, and Black American historical epics.

The Hypnotist posterSo good on J. that The Hypnotist seems to not only be a science fiction story but one that plays with blackness and Africanness. This is a teaser so one can’t know how deeply these themes will be explored, but I’m struck by the fact that this 50-second trailer so forthrightly names blackness, Africanness, and slavery. That. is. just. dope.

The question then is: how will this all work?

I’m wondering if The Hypnotist will be a play on Egyptian doctor Imhotep’s “temple sleep” and if part of what is explored is this notion of reconnecting to that subconscious Africanness that was erased by white supremacy and centuries in North America. There is a lot of subtextual room to play here that I think could give the show some deeper resonance that is specific to the Black American experience and psyche.

These are big questions, to be sure. We shall see just what J. has in store.



Posted on June 10th, 2013 - Filed under Film,Television
Tags :: , , , , ,

What Exactly Is ‘The Best Man’ Sequel Trailer Saying?

In a piece I wrote two years ago for the homie Alyssa at ThinkProgress in which I discuss what I think The Best Man sequel, The Best Man Holiday, should address, I said that Malcolm Lee should center the film around Nia Long’s character, Jordan Armstrong.

Looks like that is going to happen.

However I also said:

…the [original] film hinges on the fact that a total slut like Lance Sullivan is such a chauvinist that the very idea of his bride having a sexual past sends him into a blind rage and makes him question whether or not she’s worthy of him. It’s a film that continues to suggest that driven career black women are unworthy of love. Career woman Jordan Armstrong (played by Long), is the only woman to end the film alone, even as the stripper with the heart of gold and the emasculating shrew each end up with a man.

So the question this trailer raises for me is whether Jordan’s choice to date a white man is an outgrowth of the fact that in Lee’s mind careerist black women are unworthy of love from black men specifically or something less troublesome. In other words, did she have no other choice but to date a white man or not?

I don’t want Jordan’s choice to be a reaction to black men’s inability to appreciate everything that she represents – an independent, career-obsessed woman. I think that lets black men off the hook for their anti-woman retrogressive beliefs about what a “good black woman” is supposed to be.

As much as I love the original film, I still believe it was a terribly unfair and dangerous subtext to suggest that Jordan couldn’t have a career and love. To suggest in the sequel that the only way she could have both is to date a white man would just continue to reinforce the belief that black men’s sexist assumptions about black women are entrenched and intractable. If the film goes that route it would be incredibly dangerous, irresponsible and unfortunate.

There’s a way to tell this story in a way that doesn’t do this. I just am not sure that Lee will do that.



Posted on May 14th, 2013 - Filed under Film
Tags :: , , , , , , , , , , , ,