Tag Archives: Will Smith

Anthony Mackie and the Definition of Stardom

I was struck by this exchange between actor Anthony Mackie and Jai Tiggett over at Shadow and Act.

JT: There’s been some talk on our site lately about your career and whether you’ll go on to play the leading man more consistently, in large studio films. Is that your goal, or do you prefer to stay under the radar?

AM: Hollywood’s a business, and until someone puts their finger on you and decides you’re the guy who’s going to carry that movie, it’s not going to happen. So I’m just enjoying the position that I’m in right now and trying to make the most of it.

JT: So would you say that yes, Anthony Mackie wants to be “the guy”?

AM: [Laughs]. Most of the time when you see a movie, the best character in the movie is not “the guy,” it’s the guy next to the guy. So I enjoy playing “the guy next to the guy” because it’s always – in almost every movie last year – the best character in the movie. It’s just fun as an actor to get the opportunity to do something where you can really sink your teeth into it.

What I like about this exchange is that it suggests that Anthony Mackie is incredibly self-aware and very comfortable with the choices he’s making as an actor, regardless of how they might be perceived by the public.

I think it’s somewhat strange to be thinking about “who the next Will Smith will be” partly because Will ain’t goin nowhere and partly because the question suggests that his model is the only model of what it means to be a black movie star.

I think we’re limiting ourselves when we have this conversation. Anthony seems to understand that in a way that I don’t think people appreciate enough. I think he’s quite eloquent in chafing (without chafing, really) at the notion that he’s not “successful” because he’s not a Big Willie. He’s consistently suggested that there are other models for success and that our obsession with Will’s assimilationist model isn’t the only one we should aspire to.

In my mind, the guy that says this:

and this:

isn’t concerned about the Will Smith model. He’s thinking about his own.

We need to start listening to Anthony Mackie, man.

Black Hollywood, ctd.

 

Mackie is right that it would help if we essentially see Hollywood as less what is and more what could be. This is where Tyler Perry can actually be an important and useful figure – he just did it himself.

But unfortunately Will Smith is the goal. Everyone waiting around to get the big movie that makes them millionaires so they too can make movies that have absolutely nothing to do with us.

Erasure

Alyssa's post on the remakes of A Star is Born and Annie with Beyonce and Willow Smith, respectively, is eloquent:

It seems almost fitting that the progression of these eternal American stories would eventually expand to include black women. We live in a world where African American women have only won acting Academy Awards for playing a prisoner's wife, a slave, a con-artist medium, a woman who becomes a star only after she has to take a fall into single motherhood, and a hideously abusive mother. Annie and A Star Is Born are much less complex stories than either of those roles. But maybe equality means not having to struggle against the burdens of history on-screen, just to embody a straight trajectory towards victory on the virtue of good nature that knows no color.

Continue reading

some thoughts on black sexuality



Pretty Ricky, Knockin' Boots '08

Putting aside the abomination of covering such a classic, this video calls to mind something Frank Leon Roberts wrote regarding the Omarion/BowWow "relationship":

I think the nonchalance of their union speaks to a larger—and truly unprecedented—-moment in post-1960s black popular culture where black men are being given a space to perform versions of masculinity and kinship that do not have to adhere with the violent, hypermasculinist models popularized by mid-nineties hip hop culture.

…because, this is the "gayest" video I've seen in a long time. 

And I mean that respectfully.

There's something liberating about how increasingly comfortable black men are with disrupting our notions of what black masculinity is. In this video, we see an unapologetic display of "black gayness" on a level to which we just haven't seen before.  The video's images are revelatory in their unvarnished celebration of young men showing off their bodies. This is not the floss of straight black men who preen for women. 

This is self-affirmation that reminds me of the swag of a young ball kid.

There is no irony, no catching someone doing a 'gay-like' dance "on accident," no pretense whatsoever.  The close-ups of one of the guys poppin and grindin his hips is something you'd see in any black gay club, but rarely see in such a prominent way in corporate black pop. 

And there are practically no women.  Pretty Ricky themselves are the object of the video.  As objects, they are comfortably "queering" the male gaze.  And it's noticeable (check the comments on the video, over 500 in just 6 days). 

In this respect, I think this video marks significant progress in problematizing dominant narratives of black masculinity. 

For that, Pretty Ricky are to be congratulated. 

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Will Smith apparently told the media that he and Jada have talked about having an open relationship.

I'm deeply fascinated.

Again, we have the most prominent black married couple talking about a radical shift in their relationship. A radical break from conventional norms.

Our perspective is, you don't avoid what's natural and you're going to be attracted to people.

I think this is important because Will is pretty clear that he and Jada make a distinction between a marriage and a sexual relationship.  In their minds, those are two different things.

Been saying that for a minute.

Even got into a lil blog-ument about it (click the link and do a find with my name "Tyler" if you are curious) with some folks over at VerySmartBrothas.com where I said:

I think its amusing that we talk about how humans are one of the few animals on the planet that have sex for pleasure and then in the same breath say that monogamy is natural. For me, those two statements are contradictory because we understand fidelity to be about sex (or rather, an equation of sex with love, which to me is specious).

…and other stuff. 

Ultimately, I think this is an affirmation of the love they share.  I like that they talk about these things.  I like how they seem to acknowledge the sexuality they share and also acknowledge that there is sexuality that is separate, that lies outside convention. 

And I don't think these conversations are anywhere near as harmonious as the news article suggests.  I bet they've argued.  I bet Jada's Baltimore came out and I bet Will took it back to Philly a bit. 

I bet it took time to get to a place where they both agree on this (whether they act on this agreement or not is not all that important to me).

I am enjoying this glimpse into how grown ass loving black folks cope with their complicated sexualities.

*Shout out to my boy D for inspiring this post.*

Reviewing Will Smith’s Hancock

Will Smith as Hancock

!!! WARNING – SPOILERS BELOW !!!!

Hancock is a big incoherent mess, anchored beautifully by Will Smith’s brilliant central performance.  But it’s also an intriguing, big incoherent mess.

Hancock continues Will’s recent trend to combine depth and spectacle.  It also, along with I Am Legend, marks a shift in how race complicates and enriches Will’s screen performances.

This is what makes the film so intriguing.

Film Journal International explains:

Since leaving his Fresh Prince persona behind for global movie stardom, Will Smith has established two distinct screen identities. On the one hand, there’s Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the WorldTM, who keeps moviegoers laughing and cheering in blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Hitch. Between those crowd-pleasers, though, we’re treated to Mr. William Smith*, a hard-working dramatic actor who throws himself into challenging roles like a legendary boxer or a homeless single father and reaps acclaim and awards for his efforts. Recently, the soon-to-be-40-year-old has worked hard to fuse these personas into the same movie. (emphasis added)

The subtext?

This merger of personas means that “Big Willie: The Most Bankable Actor in the World TM” is now becoming increasingly comfortable with bringing a more complex black man, one that he’s crafted beautifully in his dramas, to his big budget films.

To put a fine point on it: Will has only played a black man on screen three times (Where The Day Takes You, Six Degrees of Separation, and Ali ). All three, not coincidentally, diversions from his “big budget” career.  The Pursuit of Happyness and The Legend of Bagger Vance do not count because the films were so aggressively, so doggedly concerned with deracinated blackness (or what other critics call “incidental blackness”).

But in Hancock, there is are clever allusions to life as a black man (not to mention a golden-era hip hop soundtrack) that never quite payoff, but are worth discussing.  Hancock is not unlike Ellison’s protagonist in Invisible Man.  Hancock is underappreciated and alone in the world and that has an effect on his ability to connect or behave appropriately.  His backstory eloquently puts his behavior in some context.  His behavior then has a melancholy nonchalance (played beautifully by Will in those first 50 minutes) that makes him more than the “asshole” he is purported to be.

Interestingly, a couple of reviews actually acknowledge that race colors the film.

Popmatters.com is eloquent when it states:

Ray can say this: he’s never been a scary black man with limitless physical powers and a stockpile of anger. Hancock has other issues, beyond his own psychic health, beyond his daily efforts to support the system that has made him feel so alienated and mad. The film notes these issues in passing, en route to its much more predictable and unenlightening resolution. But Hancock can’t actually consider the pop cultural environment that produces Hancock. It would have to be a different, more coherent movie. (emphasis added)

What they allude to in this passage is that Hancock’s race is completely erased, or discarded, after Mary (Charlize Theron, in a strong performance ) reveals her connection to Hancock.  You can tell most directly by the fact that, from this point on, the hip-hop soundtrack switches to a typical melodrama score. This can somewhat be explained by the fact that the tone of the film switches so drastically at this point.  But the subtext of this switch in tone, music (and Hancock’s behavior) seems to be that Hancock has to be deracinated once it is revealed that he’s Mary’s spouse and because, yea, a big scary black man with limitless power is, well…scary.

This is an imperfect reading of the film because the film becomes a disaster after the big reveal and never pays off what it sets up with respect to race.  In addition, Hancock’s blackness relies a whole helluva lot on Will Smith’s blackness to convey some of the subtext that makes the opening 50 minutes so intriguing.

The film then ultimately only flirts with making Will Smith a full-fledged black man.

But with I Am Legend (where his character is clearly black and even talks about it) and Hancock, we see Hollywood filmmakers, and Will himself, struggling to figure out what it means to have a black actor in a film environment that has historically been a white one.  You can see in I Am Legend that they are unsure what it means for the last man on Earth to be a black man.  His blackness is mentioned in passing (a speech about Bob Marley), but it is so intrinsic to who Robert Neville (Will’s character) is that its worth noting as a shift in Will’s big budget persona.

It’s worth noting that neither film “blackens” Will expertly, or even believably, all the time, but its interesting to watch.

This merger of Will’s persona that FJI discusses then hinges on rendering complex representations of race in film contexts that Hollywood has never done before.  Because what makes Will’s dramatic performances work is that the people he portrays are three-dimensional people, three-dimensional black people.  If you insert that kind of character into a big budget film, things necessarily change.

In an article I wrote a few years ago, I posited that the real arrival of black actors will be when our unique histories and identities are not erased by simply inserting us into roles written for white actors.  This means that any film with black leads is inherently different than one with white leads because our experiences are different.  And it should be written that way.

What does it mean that the last man on Earth is black?  What does a film like that look like?

What does a black superhero look like?  How does that flip comic book convention?

It’s not as simple as inserting a black actor into a role like, oh, just about every role Will has had before.  Robert Neville and Hancock are different kind of protagonists because they are black.

It’s nice to see that acknowledged and grapped with, if imperfectly.

 

*Interestingly, Will is short for Willard, not William.