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On Will Smith’s Seemingly Strategic Aversion To Controversial Roles…

On Will Smith's Seemingly Strategic Aversion To Controversial Roles...

Editor’s note: Worthy of a revisit a year later, in light of new discussion over Will Smith’s seemingly fading star, and the choices he’s made in recent years, including the latest, After Earth, out in theaters tomorrow.

As anticipation for Quentin Tarantino’s visionary “Southern,” Django Unchained, nears a fever pitch, my thoughts have turned to the man who was initially approached to essay the role that eventually went to Jamie Foxx – and what his ultimate refusal of such a controversial role means on a macro level.

With a filmography stretching back to 1992 (anyone remember Where the Day Takes You?), Will Smith has transformed himself from hip-hop pioneer to global megastar, arguably one of a few actors, black or white, who can guarantee a top opening weekend for any movie in which he stars. Forget Black Hollywood’s A-List – Will Smith is a star in any solar system.

What’s surprising then is the lack of “risky” roles in Mister Smith’s nevertheless glorious resume. The nineteen films he’s starred in have grossed a total of almost six billion dollars, but only one of them – to my mind, at least – can be considered controversial. Six Degrees of Separation (photo above) based on a John Guare play – itself based on the antics of real-life con man David Hampton (with whom I share a birthday) – introduced Smith as a serious dramatic actor who could sink his teeth into a nuanced role. Stockard Channing got the Oscar nod but it was “Big Willie” who stole the show.

Despite the opportunity, Smith refused to kiss (in character) another man (fellow thespian Anthony Michael Hall).  Instead, the two actors were filmed at an angle that implied a kiss. Smith’s reasoning, later blasted by Sir Ian McKellen as “the disease” of homophobia, was that his kissing another man would “gross out” his fans. Smith wasn’t the first actor to “go gay” for a major film role (think Al Pacino in Cruising); in fact, playing a homosexual while being straight nowadays can actually up one’s acting cred  – you’re welcome, Jake Gyllenhaal. (It should also be noted that Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich, the duo behind Independence Day, specifically cited Six Degrees as the reason they picked Smith for the breakout role of Capt. Steven Hiller.)

But I digress. This is not an examination of heterosexual actors navigating gay roles but rather a question about Smith’s avoidance of roles that could perhaps violate an image or persona held by fans, media and perhaps the Hollywood machine. Breaking from type, from an ain’t-broke formula that puts asses in seats, is a tightrope walk for any actor associated with a certain breed of character. Perennial hero Henry Fonda took a chance when he signed on to play – gasp! – bad guy Frank in Sergio Leone’s epic western, Once Upon a Time in the West. The gamble paid off, however, resulting in a performance that’s every bit as powerful as his Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath.

The same could be said for 2002’s Academy Award winners for Best Actor and Actress, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry. Denzel has played baddies before – his performance in A Soldier’s Story is chilling – but he’d grown comfortable, if you will, playing real and fictional good guys in movies like Cry Freedom and The Preacher’s Wife. Alonzo Harris, a role Bruce Willis turned down, allowed Washington to tap into his dark side and burn up the screen in Training Day, a type departure that netted him the elusive Best Actor Oscar and expanded the possibilities of how he could be utilized by studio execs. (think Safe House, or any other film where he coaches up a rising white actor). Halle “uglied” herself up and worked at a discount to help bring Monster’s Ball to life. Baring her soul, and so much more, Berry breathed life into a role other well-known black actresses had turned down – and struck gold.

I’m not saying Mister Smith or any other actor has to play it grimy for accolades, but it’s a shame that the star of Pursuit of Happyness hasn’t at least tried to take on more risky roles. Besides Six Degrees, the only other “controversial” movie I could even point to would be Ali, and even then only with regard to past issues of race in America and concerns about historical accuracy. All the great actors have played against type, showing the range that the truly talented chameleons are blessed with. If Smith counts himself among them, I implore him to consider going in a direction opposite that of a Hancock or Robert Neville or Agent J. In other words, don’t turn down another Django!

It’s not lost on me that black actors have more to lose if a risky role doesn’t sell – although Will Smith is hardly typical. So I put the question to those here on S&A: Do you think an actor of Smith’s prestige can benefit from riskier, edgier roles? What about lesser-known, lesser-paid – but no less capable – actors such as Anthony Mackie and Viola Davis?


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Why does my comment seem to spammy? Your site is absolutely ridiculous if you reject comments on some false pretense that they appear "too spammy." I’ve wasted a precious half hour trying to contribute on the analysis you written above but cannot because of such a ridiculous rule.


Why is that people equate controversy with quality? Will buck the trend and refused to take a subordinate, poorly written role to participate in Oscar category fraud. Just what does "taking risks" mean anyway? Will has demos tested range in Seven Pounds, Ali and TOPH two fat eyes OscR noms. As mentioned before, we don't ask the same of Pitt, Clooney, Bradley Cooper etc…

Justin Jordan

Tamabay, I've learned so much from reading this article and these comments: acting techniques (Meisner), classic movies (like Magnolia–Tom Cruise won me over here), lead actors vs. character actors, the suspension of disbelief (thanks Eflowone). I just had my own mini film course!

The greatest learning however, and comment, is that Will Smith (and his team of agents/mentors) brilliantly mapped out his career and made it happen. Who does this? How many people anywhere set a goal of being the biggest draw in Hollywood, at a time when there were few AA big draws (Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes?), and makes it happen?

Daniel Delago

'After Earth' is one of the worst summer blockbusters I've had to sit through in years. Will Smith fans will go see it out of loyalty. Maybe it's good when a box office star gets a reality check. He came up with the original concept for the film. He wants his son, Jaden to follow in his footsteps. He and his wife are producers of the film. This is when an actor needs to take a look in the mirror and realize it is time to get back to more edgier, dramatic roles.

A. Fiasco

I agree that Will could definitely use some risky roles in his repetoire, but I definitely think he was right to pass on Django. It wasn't a complex enough role, if you ask me. And being in a controversial film just for the sake of controversy isn't really worth it. He was smart for not taking it.

Thomas Rideout

When are you going to realize that the role in Django, deserved to passed up!!

Juwan Dickerson

My wife and I were just speaking about Will Smith career and his role in Six Degrees of Separation and I was explaining to her about how his portrayal as a gay character led to his role in Independence Day and his later stardom although I had always thought that he actually did kiss Anthony Hall.

I do wish that Will Smith would take on more diverse roles especially now since he's older, and may not be the biggest money bringer in terms of box office these days. The billion dollar comic book movie blockbusters now rule that and names like Nolan, Whedon, and Abrams all directors, are the ones putting the butts in the seats.

Some of Will Smiths best roles has been those smaller dramatic roles although they haven't brought in the most money. But we all know that the Fresh Prince isn't hurting for money he can afford the risk. And heck Django made a ton of money no shade on Jaimie Foxx but if Will Smith would have taken it, it probably would have been a billion dollar blockbuster.


Why should Smith be taking on edgy roles? Do we ask the same question about Pitt, Cruise, and the like? Smith has often said one of the reasons that he became a success was that he mapped out a plan after 6 degrees and that include trying to get roles in big budget sci-fi films that were sure to draw an audience. Most people did not go to see Independence Day because of Smith, but they left impressed with him. Therefore, I see him playing the same card with his son. You mention Berry, but was her role in Monsters Ball really necessary. What A-list black male actors are in Hollywood, beyond Smith and Washington. There are some on the come-up, but until he falls off the list there is no reason to even present a diatribe such as this.


I'm not what you'd call a Will Smith fan. I've only, purposely, seen two movies that he's ever been in: 'Happyness' and '6 Degrees', as I'm not much of an action moviegoing gal. He's made enough money, now, that if he were ever worried about taking risks, he shouldn't be, anymore.

I definitely don't view him as an "artist," but more of a money machine. He had a plan when he came to Hollywood and it's worked — and certainly continues to work, worldwide — but I think, here, in the states, his star has definitely faded. REAL artists take risks, regardless of race.

That's why audiences LOVE Denzel, and why he has two Oscars, to Will's NONE. … Smith has become incredibly one note, and the dog and pony show of trying to help his kid's career, and constantly talking about them, and his marriage to Jada, etc., has become his Tom Cruise jumping on the couch Oprah moment. It's TOO much. The more I learn about his crazy family and how they're raising those two untalented minions Jaden and Willow, the less I like him as an actor.

You don't get respect — from your audience or Hollywood — for not taking risks.
Tom Hanks took a HUGE risk playing a homosexual in Philadelphia and look at the deep, interesting, career he's had. …"Philadelphia" and "Six Degrees" came out the same year — 1993. He won best Oscar that year for "Philadelphia" AND his second for "Forrest Gump." …He may win a Tony this year for "Lucky Guy." And, like Denzel, he's made a far greater impact, on celluloid, that generations of filmlovers will remember, than Smith. Oh, and his films have grossed billions overseas too.

Perhaps what's most disappointing about Smith is that he seems to be wasting his power and influence in Hollywood. …I'm not saying that ALL black people, once they've made it, have an obligation to give back — a relative term — within the industry, but it was nice to see Denzel direct and produce "The Great Debaters." It was great when Winfrey produced "Brewester Place." And, of course, no other black filmmaker has done as much as Spike Lee to advance the careers of blacks before, and behind the scenes, in cinema. …Would be nice if Smith would do something too.


I also don't think it's a big deal to not "take risks". Why should you have to do what everyone thinks you have to do? Risky, edgy what does it all mean anyway? Sex, drugs, bad guy? So what. He is accessible, and has charisma. The only thing he needs to do is get his kids out of our faces, and hire some black film directors and writers to helm whatever movie he wants to star in.


I don't understand how anyone can think Will Smith's star is fading. He is arguably one of the biggest movie stars on planet earth. Whatever genre he is in, regardless if his character is the same, will be successful because of his name. Whether or not he is or isn't as big as used to be doesn't change the fact that he's still a bigger box office draw than most actors.

amira smith

I really enjoy the comments here. A lot of good offerings on the subject. I feel when it comes to Will Smith it may not be an aversion to risky roles, but just always wanting to bring a certain level of pure energy to the world through entertainment. We already know from his music career that he refuses to put out work that he may feel less than proud of in any regard. He refused to cuss on record in hip-hop music. If that isn't integrity, I don't know what is! I knew he turned down Django not because of controversy or being 'scared' of the role (I honestly don't think Will Smith is big on fear), but in Quentin Tarantino's words in an interview, they couldn't get it to a place where Will got all he wanted from it. It's nice to know part of what he wanted was Django killing Candy.


I think it all depends, for a black male actor who is high profile as Will Smith it still seems as though it is a risk. It does seem in Hollywood a lot of straight male actors take on gay roles because they want to win an Oscar or get critical acclaim. Look at Michael Douglas and Matt Damon their gay film about Liberace was over hyped by the media. The acting was decent but the paucity of sexual scenes between the two men was disappointing. Douglas and Damon briefly kissed and had a tame sex scene really not a big deal.

The press are still a bit homophobic, in the sense that you don't see openly gay actors taking on gay film roles. I don't see Zachary Quinto or Matt Bomer playing a gay film role and I doubt they would be praised by the media either if they did.

I think the high profile black male actors like Will Smith or Denzel Washington are hesitant to take on a gay role because of their brand. Smith and Washington have a very heterosexual brand.

Although lower profile black male actors like Anthony Mackie have taken on a gay role in the film Brother to Brother and that was actually Mackie's first breakthrough as an actor.

Maurice Emel

Will Smith is a person who knows exactly what he wants and he set a blueprint for himself years ago that he has stuck to it and it's worked for him, I can't knock him for knowing what he wants, getting it and succeeding at it. He has publicly stated that when he started acting he wanted to be the biggest movie star there was so he modeled himself on the biggest at that time (Tom Hanks) and chose the most successful genre (Sci-fi). That's what he does, that's what he sticks to. In regards to other actors like Halle Berry, she's made it her goal to "ugly" herself up in roles so that she wasn't known as the "pretty girl" in too many films (she's done this since Jungle Fever, Charlize does the same). As for Ali, Smith didn't want to do that role and only gave in after Muhammad Ali personally called him and said "I think you should do this movie". He also turned down the role of Neo in the Matrix b/c he said "he'd would've just messed that movie up" so the guy knows his range and he turned down Django not b/c it was controversial but b/c the Schultz character was the real star and Will wanted Django to kill Candy, and QT wouldn't give in. So at the end of the day I think Will should be given credit for having a good game plan, sticking to it, and knowing the limits of his talent.


No disrespect to Mr. Smith…but I don't think he's capable of doing a risky role. He's not there in his craft yet. He's tried with roles like Hancock and LEGEND to add depth but what happens is that he ends up doing just a bit too much. I just don't think he's able to get there. He's not trained in bringing those nuances up that "risky" roles require.


Going gay doens't count and anymore as far taking on risky roles because its widely accepted .So even if will smith were to do another gay role now .It would be considered the norm and will smith would still be in his lane.Will smith is just as relevent as actors who step out and do such roles as gay.Gay is the new band wagon everyone is jumping on.


You say visionary, I say offensive. Maybe he had some personal reasons for turning down Django. People are not universally happy about this film.


maybe he knows he doesn't have the chops to bring something more nuanced to the screen, so he sticks to what he knows he can do adequately.

Honestly, I think he's a great 'figure' (funny, big smile, charismatic, etc), but I haven't truly enjoyed a performance of his in years. I see serious, serious gaps in his performances. Even in films I enjoy like "I am Legend".


Maybe for him, and based upon his own standards, what roles he chooses to play in are "risky". Who are we to determine what he considers under that label. What is risky to him? I enjoy what he does in terms of work. One could suggest that teaming up with another Black actor in a starring role would be risky. After all, I have yet to see him in a role/film that challenges our notions of a Black man as a leading man opposite another Black man going head to head. Usually its a white/Black pairing, and that is a dull and overused formula. I'd like to see him in a film with Denzel, Idris, Jamie, but has that happened? A kiss is worthless unless it has meaning. Just because it tittilates the desires and senses in some to see two men kiss doesn't make it "risky" in my book. And what if it is? He has every right to draw the line for himself.


I always enjoy these discussions – one of the reasons S&A is a favored site. That said, I understand the exhaustion Black actors and actresses must feel at having to "represent the race " constantly – it's the same one I feel at my job. But nobody writes about it……

Kim Casper

We usually speculate just why an actor does or does not do something, so I leave a universe of room for Will Smith to fill in the reasons he may avoid playing a "riskier" role. There have been some hip hop folks who did not want to play being good, since they viewed that as risky to their image….. When it comes to Will, I think it may be possible with the huge success he has and the knowledge of what it took to get him there, that he may just have to feel where HE wants to go, internally. He may be concerned about his image but hey, like your article said, he did do "Six Degrees" -which I just happened to watch two nights ago again- and I did notice that the kiss was implied but it worked well. Choosing to do certain roles may be more personal than one thinks. We can only hope he doesn't hesitate because of us. That he trusts our trust in him to go all out; this we hope for.


As I read the chain of comments regarding "Will Smith's Seemingly Strategic Aversion…..", I offer that one's conclusions about an actor's character portrayal are predicated on whether one can relinquish the real-life person and see the character the actor depicts in the film. Two things are essential in this regard. First, the viewer must engage "the willing suspension of disbelief". Second, and most important, the real-life person/actor must become the character so as to disengage what ever it is the viewer assumes to know about the real-life person/actor. In more than fifty years of viewing films, live theater, and television, domestic and international, it is an uncommon event.


How many times are we gonna say that Will Smith himself said the role wasn't right for him and that Keanue Reeves did a better job than he could have at the time! So his is that a mishap?

As far as actor go I think Chiwetel Ejiofor is one hell of an actor! Plays a drag queen in kinky boots then turns around an plays the most ruthless gangster in 4 Brothers. Very underrated in my opinion along with Anthony Mackie!


@Marie- I agree there seems to be a fair skinned strategy at play for females for romantic roles in "general audience" features-just as there seems to be a dark skinned strategy for males in similar films. We come in all shades so why are top black actors so uniform in complexion? And if I'm gonna' go there-average looking? Where's the black Brad Pitt?!!! I see him round the way all the time but never on screen in a "general audience" movie. Things that make you go hmmm….


The real question here is not why doesn't Will Smith choose to do more controversial, challenging roles, the real question is whether he is an actor anyway. Just being a likable non-offending personality to a broader audience doesn't make him an actor. It makes him a bankable personality that brings in money for the studios. I like the guy but I don't really consider him a real actor. Does anyone remember The Legend of Vagger Bance ? He is a Hollywood money maker now that makes his investors profitable while real actors like Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Wright, and Anthony Mackey act but don't make the big money or get the recognition. Can you imagine The Fresh Prince of Bel Air playing the lead in Hotel Rawanda? This is not a diss on Will. He has come a long way since leaving Philadelphia. He is cashing in while his age and career formula still work. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Time will take care of it all, actor or not.


Tambay not sure the pov you write, a concerned fan or viewer? Ultimately for me, smith can keep choosing projects he wants to be in as he wishes. Am actually never bothered by the choices of any these actors because at the end, I choose which of their films I want to pay to watch. Not the typical die-hard fan.


I think it's a valid question, but some actors are "stay in your lane" kind of folks and it works for them. Some actors are about "the work" and others are about the "box office"-no harm in either I guess. Regarding Halle-hmm…hers was a calculated move to play that role in Monster's Ball–and in my opinion she gave Hollywood the stereotype they wanted-I don't blame other actresses for not feeling comfortable with that. And Will was young when he did Six Degrees–he kissed David Letterman (yuck) on the mouth on his show, so clearly he's past the "disease" of homophobia LOL! For me, Will Smith is not the kind of actor I'm itching to see do a deep, dark role-but would appreciate the effort if he did.

Jason Gilmore

I'm not mad at Will's choices for the most part. He hasn't embarrassed us (with the exception of Bagger Vance, which most people never saw) and everyone has a different mission (i.e. there would've been no Shaft or Black Caesar if Poitier didn't pave the way). I'm just mystified that he has yet to work with a black director. Not even at the beginning of his film career. Not one. Name ONE other black actor who's even B-level that you can say that about. This deliberate omission is odd to me, and, in my opinion, a bigger red flag than his largely escapist acting choices.


And to come back to Will Smith , I don't feel his career path has been a bad one at all, building a strong box office step by step and by having block busters at the same time has worked for him but here's the thing, in his production company he has from what I am told 5 very controversial scripts on his desk 3 of them he's about to sign off on that were groomed for him. So I think his next strategic move will be to go for those award winning roles at the same time he has a huge blockbuster in the market so he won't be hurt. Smart move in my book !!!!


Orville is so far off, I remember having just missed Denzel at an open rehearsal session uptown in Washington Heights, he came there to see an actor putting together a theater group of Latino actors and actresses and walked in on the surprised , and stayed and gave everybody of his time and efforts. And even got on the small stage and wanted to be involved in one of the scenes, when he left all those actors were so hyped beyond imagine. He gave of his time and every one was so worried about taking up his time that they said he went over to wall and took the clock down and told them stop looking at the clock and lets just get down. I think your referring to that Denzel that is on another Planet existing in another time zone and is his evil twin and if they ever meet all humanity will disappear. Is that the one you mean!!!


Adam, the role of Django was not written as controversial. Rather, that role was written as weak.


Umm….I'm no big Will Smith fan but maybe just maybe he turned down this role because there was no payoff in "starring" in this "controversial" film? He'd essentially be the side kick in a film where he's playing the title character and why on earth would Hollywood's no.1 leading man agree to such a thing?


Interesting article, but I think your definition of 'controversial' bears discussion. I would contend that it was controversial for Will to play 'Ali', for Will to star as a secret agent in the 1800's western 'The Wild Wild West', that it was controversial for him to turn his nice guy image on its ear when he played the surly superhero in 'Hancock', and almost the only person onscreen in 'I, Am Legend'. Granted all four films were commercially minded, but not traditionally safe choices, in the same way that, say, Adam Sandler and until recently, Matthew McConaughey films have been: cookie cutter genre films that found a formula and stuck to it.

It seems that he looks for stories that audiences would enjoy and roles that would require him to stretch. Because he (thus far) hasn't gone as extreme as perhaps you think he should, doesn't negate the fact that he's made some challenging interesting choices. Aside from Clooney, Pitt and Cruise, there aren't many A list actors painting from as broad a palette.


I'm not worried about Will and he's for sure not worried about my thoughts about his roles…Lol!


I don't think Will Smith cares. He is a rapper turned actor. I think he does movies because of the money and entertainment aspect. Not because he views acting as an art. There are many actors like him. That said, "Ali" proved that he could be a serious actor if he wanted to.


Will Smith the actor is pretty much like the Fresh Prince the rapper. Has anyone known the Fresh Prince of DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince fame to ever make a controversial song? He prided himself back then on making songs that avoiding cursing and could be enjoyed by kids in front of parents and grandparents. I think this may be simply who he is. We as artists may believe that not taking great personal and artistic risk is anathema to what it means to be an artist but, it appears to be pretty consistent with who he is or at least how he appears to represent himself.


You mean to tell me that a good movie is a controversial one???!!! seriously???


The author didn't mention it but there is an issue of homophobia in the black community that needs to be addressed. I think in the early 1990s Will Smith worried about what black homophobes would think. Will should have kissed Anthony Michael Hall in Six Degrees Separation because that's what was required of his character.

Lets be honest how many black male actors that are high profile willing to take on a gay film role? I can't think of anyone other than Wesley Snipes in the drag film back in 1995. A lot of white male actors don't seem to have a problem taking no a gay role like Jake Gyllenhaal, Heath Ledger, ect.

I think if more black male actors should take on gay film roles.

I would love for more black actors to take on complex LGBT roles to show their range and talents.

Will Smith is the most successful black actor of ALL TIME and he's still only 43 years old! Will's personality I think helped him reach the top of Hollywood he's the non threatening black man.
People need to remember when Six Degrees of Separation came out Will was only 24 years of age he was very young. I think Will has a brand and his brand is all about making money and not rocking the boat. But what about Pursuit of Happyness I felt in that role Will really showed his range as an actor and he did get an Oscar nomination for that role.

Denzel Washington is an amazing actor but he has an arrogance to him and I heard he has a nasty attitude beyond the camera and public eye. Washington has been relegated to second tier status in his movies he now is paired with young white actors like Ryan Reynolds. The studios aren't confident that Denzel can have hits on his own and reach a white and international audience by himself anymore.


It's all about timing. Reginald's right: nothing wrong with strategy. Actually, one might call it necessary in today's Hollywood. But to give one opinion on your last question- It's definitely time to see Viola Davis in an edgier role- the right one, of course. She doesn't want to scare away all the fans she's made from Eat, Pray, Love or The Help. But Anthony Mackie is a tricky one. I love his work and his plight so far (Check him out in this month's O Magazine). I would love to keep seeing him expand his range which he is more than capable of doing, but I want him around for the long haul too which requires some of Will Smith's good guy strategy. Let's just see what he decides and support him regardless.


What people always fail to understand is that Will Smith WOULD NOT be the superstar he is if he did "brave roles" or took chances. He is the superstar he is primarily due to his hard work ethic, personality and choice of roles. We must remember that not EVERYONE wants to see their favorite celebrity do crazy type or "risky" roles. He's done fine by my sight.


It's important to point out that Will Smith has since said he regrets not going through with the kiss and that it was an immature decision.


Remember he was also up for the role of Neo in the Matrix but turned that down too because he was confused by the script. It's kind of sad to see him always making the safe choices .


Personally, I think Will is at the point where he can turn down anything he wants. The controversial/thought provoking roles lead to the "megawatt" roles…where any driven actor wants to be. "Six Degrees of Separation" was against 'type', but what about "Seven Pounds"… or playing a BLACK superhero in "Hancock". Personally, Even a role like the one he had in "I Am Legend" speaks volumes to his talent. Not many people can hold down the screen alone for almost the entirety of the film. I understand the questions here are posed to create dialogue…but… I think his roles have been varied, and nothing is wrong with being strategic in your career handling. Nothing.


Perhaps this explains why I've never been interested in a Will Smith film: studied predictability.

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