Will Smith is stranded in a post-apocalyptic New York City with only his German Shepherd as company. Or, in The Pursuit of Happyness, he’s homeless in unfriendly San Francisco with only his son (Smith’s and Jada Pinkett’s real son Jaden) to care for him. Smith makes one-man movies, or home movies with his kid, and America flocks to them. In what may be Hollywood’s first post-movie-star era, when neither George Clooney nor Matt Damon nor Brad Pitt can coax audiences to see everything they do, Smith may be the only guarantor of robust box office grosses — the last real movie star.
The really amazing thing about Smith’s run over the past dozen years (12 hits and only two flops, the worthy social dramas Ali and Bagger Vance) is that the movies themselves aren’t that great. Without top co-stars or grade-A material, he stills brings audiences in. And not just to the burly action movies (I Am Legend; I. Robot; Enemy of the State, Independence Day) or action comedies (Men in Black, Bad Boys II, Wild Wild West). His huge fan base loyally pays for a litttle romance (Hitch) or a lotta uplift (Happyness).
How does he accomplish this? Not through Poitier-Washington nobility, or Sweetback-Pryor raunch. He brings that undefinable essence of likability to characters who Never Give Up. He is both black (obviously) and beyond blackness. That makes Smith’s pre-eminence as cheering as Barack Obama’s Presidential plausibility. Moviegoers aren’t color-blind any more than voters are, but they can envision an America where an African American could run the country, and the Fresh Prince rules the movies.