Some thoughts on Will Smith, sorta...


I've basically sworn off big movies, and big stars. But for some reason, I'm a devoted fan of Will Smith. I was just watching the trailer for Seven Pounds, which may be awful, and yet there was a voice inside me that said, "We're going to see that film." I thought the first half of Hancock was pretty damn good, but it went to seed when it started explaining itself. Too bad to, because I also like Charlize Theron. But that's another thread.

I think part of the appealing thing is watching this black dude walk through a largely white world without compromise. I think a lot of folks missed the importance of how Barack Obama ended his victory speech. His subject, Ann Nixon Cooper, a 106-year old black woman who'd voted for him. But instead of simply casting her story as a black woman who'd suffered racial oppression, he talked about cars on the road, and planes in the air, he talked about the dust bowl and the depression, he talked about women's suffrage and he also talked slavery and the bus boycott.

Andre 3000 has this great line in one of his songs where he pretends to have a conversation with a critic of hip-hop who says "I thought hip-hop was only drugs and alcohol" and he responds by telling her hell no, "but yet it's that too." That's the thing about that story--it's not that Obama white-washed Cooper and ignored race, it's that he weaved race into the larger story of her as a human being and an American. She was not just a victim of racial oppression--and yet she was that too.

I see a lot of that in Will when I watch him acting. Dig his style in Hancock or I Robot. Whatever you think of those movies, you can see hip-hop oozing out of dude's pores. I make no brief for black exceptionalism here--this is how identity works. But I think one of the things that's so cool about this generation--the Andre 3000s, the Jay-Z's, the Colson Whitehead, the Junot Diazes--is how we claim our heritage but not to the exclusion of the rest of the world.

I want to be clear--this is about freedom and opportunity, not some special quality of this age. When he was kid, my Dad loved Dostoevsky, Dickens and Dumas. But history called him into Vietnam and then into the Black Panthers. Didn't mean he liked Dickens any less. He'd give Booker T. Washington/Malcolm X lectures on the importance of black business one moment, and then head down to the Charles Theater to see the latest French flick the next. He was always complicated, but the times called for a particular part of him.

Hmm, this was supposed to be how much I like Will Smith. I guess it's about how cool it is to get a little more free.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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