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Social Studies

Man of The Future

Emily Flake

By Vincent Williams | Posted 11/28/2007

The thing that fascinates me most about Will Smith's science fiction/action oeuvre is how used we've gotten to him saving us all. Whether it's Independence Day or either of the Men in Black films, if there's a CGI situation that needs to be handled with a wisecrack, for the past decade, Smith seems to be pop culture's prime problem-solver. Hell, even the hit-and-miss I, Robot and the universally panned Wild, Wild West didn't sputter because of the ubiquitous actor. And, with the forthcoming I Am Legend, Will Smith has cemented his role as sci-fi's cinematic everyman. What does that say about us, as a people, that we've collectively accepted him in that role?

It's poetic that the culmination of Smith's ascension into science-fiction everyman would be in the remake of the Richard Matheson story, since Charlton Heston made the role his own 30 years ago. In many ways, Heston is Smith's cinematic predecessor. Between 1968 and 1973, Heston starred in three sci-fi films that captured the zeitgeist of American mainstream audiences: Planet of the Apes, Soylent Green, and the second filmed version of "I Am Legend," The Omega Man.

The best science fiction serves as a metaphor for the times in which it is created, and these three films certainly worked in this manner. Those peak years of the Vietnam War/counterculture/post-civil rights age were challenging for many Americans, particularly the established white middle class, and Heston's roles in these three films reflected the hard time many folks were having with the new look of the country. In 1968, the actor was a Hollywood icon, with an image that was pure establishment and old world, and so his appearance in these films automatically represented something more than just the roles themselves.

Sure, superficially, Heston told the apes to get their damn dirty hands off of him, and he impotently screamed to an ignorant and ignoring world that Soylent Green was people. However, on a much deeper level, the actor was reflecting the angst many middle-class Americans were experiencing from waking up in a world gone mad, assaulted from all sides, as all the authority that they were supposed to trust lied and victimized them.

My personal favorite of the Heston Trifecta? Omega Man. Considering Heston is, at least, 20 years older than everyone else in the cast, and the evil zombies are made up of longhaired young white men and Afroed young black men who refer to each other as "my brother," the thing might as well have been called The Last Sane Man in America Battles Them Damn Hippies and Their Angry Black Friends. Heston was old America's voice. He was Everyman.

And that's why it fascinates the hell out of me that Smith has taken over that role, because, y'know, it's Will Smith, product of hip-hop. Although he's primarily known as an actor nowadays, Smith is very much identified by his years as an MC. Whether it's the fact that Smith's breakthrough series based on his hit "Parents Just Don't Understand," The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, has been in continuous syndication since its first run finished, or that every couple of years he releases a pleasantly nonthreatening album, everyone knows about his connection to hip-hop. In fact, Smith is, arguably, the art form's greatest ambassador.

I would also argue that Smith is a fully racialized leading man. Subtly but surely, he consistently conveys the cadence and swagger of, well, a young black man. When Smith's Men in Black character quips to Tommy Lee Jones that the difference between the duo's appearance in the plain black suit is that Smith "makes this look good," his line delivery and cockiness comes from a specifically codified black space. Compared to his almost race-neutral predecessors, like early Sidney Poitier, or even his more, let us say, racially ambiguous or racially low-key contemporaries, such as the persistently nonthreatening Tiger Woods or Dwayne "What's His Deal Anyway-He's Sort of Beige, I Guess" Johnson, aka the Rock, Smith's comfort level with his blackness is almost radical.

And yet, we're all comfortable with Smith saving us all. I find that reassuring and hopeful. Sure, it took 300 years and the man had to save us from aliens, robots, and giant spiders, but it says something about our maturity as a culture that we feel that, if there's only one man left on Earth, Will Smith is the one we want to represent us. ★

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