Is Will Smith still the Biggest Black Action Star?
Updated: Sep 5, 2020
From rapper, to sitcom actor, to biggest star on the planet, Will Smith has definitely broken barriers and become larger than life. Known to a generation mostly as the titular Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, the rapper turned comedic actor booked supporting roles in a few indie movies before breaking out in the 1995 smash hit, Bad Boys. With the concluding final season of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1996, Smith essentially quit the sitcom biz for a bonafide movie career and followed up the successful Bad Boys with another mega-hit, Independence Day. And he never looked back.
Riding the momentum of the two summer blockbusters, Smith followed it up with two more action heavy money makers, Men in Black in 1997 and Enemy of the State in 1998. He was the “IT” guy. The veritable go to blockbuster star that would automatically turn a profit if he were top billed. However, after the dismal critical and box office disappointment of Wild Wild West, Will Smith ventured into more straight forward dramas (The Legend of Bagger Vance, Ali), as a sort of palette cleanser. He would return to the franchises that made him a household name shortly thereafter, with Men in Black II and Bad Boys II in 2002 and 2003, respectively.
This would mark a similar pattern in his filmography as he would fluctuate from drama to action movie with a comedy or animated feature thrown in for good measure. His name alone could save a movie from obscurity (I, Robot, Hitch, The Pursuit of Happyness, I Am Legend, Hancock) all the way into the 2010s. But then something inexplicable happened. The 2013 M. Night Shyamalan feature After Earth failed to meet the grand expectations from both Will Smith and his high profile director. It made a meager $243.8 million worldwide against a $130 million budget (not including an estimated $100 million in marketing) and was considered Will Smith’s first flop.
So what made Will Smith the global superstar that he is today? From a box office analyst perspective, you could say, bottom line, the movies that he starred in made a significant profit for the studios. But there’s more to it than that. From The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to Bad Boys for Life, Will Smith has always been extremely relatable as an actor on screen and off. He’s appealing to every demographic, is the perfect 4 quadrant actor, and has never played a profoundly despicable character. And even in the roles that played against his type, like Hancock, Suicide Squad, or Bright, he played an anti-hero with a heart of gold.
So I’ll ask the question again. Is Will Smith the Biggest Black Action Star? Yes and no. No, because he was never confined to a moniker of black action star and his Team of Managers and Agents made sure of that. They made sure to maximize his image of wholesome, good natured, and down to earth boy from Philly. The black Tom Hanks if you will. And yes, because he is the most successful black action star currently working and there will never be another actor of his star caliber and profit margin. He may turn out a box office dud here and there, more recently with 2019’s Gemini Man, but he will always return to success with whether it be Disney’s Aladdin or the Bad Boys franchise.