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Will Smith Getty 2.jpg

Will Smith Is Going To Be Just Fine

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | June 10, 2024 |

By Kayleigh Donaldson | Celebrity | June 10, 2024 |

Will Smith Getty 2.jpg

Will Smith is back, guys. Bad Boys: Ride or Die, the fourth addition to the franchise that started way back in 1995, opened to surprisingly strong reviews and exceeded expectations at the box office. As part of the film’s extensive marketing campaign, Smith has been everywhere. He performed the title song from Men in Black on-stage at Coachella with J Balvin. He and co-star Martin Lawrence appeared in character alongside Miami Heat star Jimmy Butler for ads for the NBA finals. He ate those unbearably spicy chicken wings for Hot Ones and was expectedly hilarious and charming. It was a reminder that Smith is a capital-I icon. He gives it his all, embraces everyone, and brings with him the inimitable dazzle of superstardom.

All eyes are on him because he’s one of the most famous people alive, but of course, there is that elephant in the room. This is his first major cinematic release since his Oscar win, a moment overshadowed by him going on-stage to slap comedian Chris Rock for making a tasteless joke about his wife Jada. Bad Boys: Ride or Die has been widely viewed as Smith’s comeback, a chance for him to prove that he still has it and that he’s served his time in the doghouse, so to speak. I question whether ‘comeback’ is the appropriate term for Smith’s moment - he never really went anywhere but he also didn’t release a ton of stuff in the interim period aside from Emancipation, which was never intended for the traditional Smith audience - but it’s true that this is an important stage in his career. If the grosses are anything to go by, he’s succeeded with flying colours.

In hindsight, our responses to the slap were simultaneously too much and not enough. Watching Smith be accused of murder was ridiculous, and it was revealing in unexpected ways how quickly many people went from viewing the actor as ‘safe’ to seeing him as a thug (and the racist coding of it all was hardly subtle.) But, in the most mundane terms possible, what happened that night was a man assaulting his colleague at a workplace event. If it had happened at the office Christmas party, the responses probably would have been less heated. Hell, if Smith had slapped him at the Vanity Fair party, I imagine the discourse would have disappeared within a week or so. Doing it on the most-watched TV event of the year will obviously change things dramatically.

The slap itself became as much a Rorschach test for the ‘culture wars’ as the post-#MeToo awakening on the prevalence of workplace abuse. Many Rock defenders saw him as a truth-teller who pushed back against the Hollywood elite and showed why the right to offend should prevail (such bravery from the star of Grown Ups 2.) It was yet another symbol of the liberal Hollyweird sickness, whatever that meant.

Your mileage may vary on whether Smith slapping Rock should have ended his career. Personally, I found it extremely difficult to separate the instance from the wider context of the industry Smith has been a part of for most of his life, one where abhorrent violence against women by prominent creative figures has been denied or outright justified because art must come before artist. In the interim years since that night, I’ve lost count of the number of women who have become public punching bags for daring to accuse a male celebrity of misconduct. This seemed especially evident in the ways that Smith’s wife became a favoured focus of attack from the usual misogynists. Why was Jada suddenly the enemy, blamed for everything from goading Rock into insulting her to humiliating Smith? It’s always the woman’s fault in the end.

For a lot of people, it was also tough to watch Smith, the most prominent Black actor in the business for well over 30 years, become toxic in the space of five minutes after spending an entire career making himself as approachable and non-threatening as possible. Was that all it took for the white majority to decide that Smith was bad? Far more obscene examples of physical violence against others have barely put a dent in the reputations of some white actors. It seemed more personal, oddly, at least when compared to the cavalcade of sh*tbags who abused their spouses but were defended with, ‘Well, we don’t need our artists to be good people.’ Granted, Smith’s entire brand was built on him being a cool guy we all wanted to be friends with, but the differences still felt stark.

That might be because the slap was seen as something that forever tainted the way people would view Smith. There was this true fear that his fans would never be able to view him the same way again. How could the Fresh Prince do such a thing?! Well, because we’re all capable of that. Sure, he was the unshakable hero in many of our favourite movies, but he also still punched that alien. He was still Muhammad Ali. He still told us all about the darkest moments of his life in his oft-derided memoir. There was that profitable image of Smith, but there was also the awareness that maintaining it unflinchingly for your entire adult life would take its toll. Frankly, slapping a dude who was a gross weirdo to your wife felt as relatable as anything else Smith had done to many. When a racist system holds one Black man up as their paragon of respectability, it seems almost inevitable that they’ll kick him down at some point.

While it was greenlit before that night at the Oscars, Bad Boys: Ride or Die does feel like a conscious decision from Smith and his team to go back to basics, to return to the very core of his appeal and show the world the undeniable traits they’d miss if he went away. It was the first Bad Boys that proved he could be a movie star. Now, he’s older, sorta wiser, and keeping up with the times while acknowledging the impact time has made (it’s striking to see a franchise like this include ageing as part of the narrative when they so easily could have gone the route of Tom Cruise in Mission: Impossible and pretend they’ve discovered the fountain of youth.) Through it all, Will Smith is still here, and pushing forward. And a lot of people followed because nobody does it like him.

A lot of things can be true at once. Chris Rock crossed a line. Will Smith shouldn’t have slapped him. The reactions were often overblown but the weight of a physical attack viewed by millions became curiously underplayed. Rock’s comedic responses were crap. Smith shouldn’t have to apologize for the rest of his career. And a lot of us have missed Smith doing his thing. He really is the best at it, after all, a true mega-star in the age of decline for the A-List leading man. That’s the enduring truth here: the things audiences love about Smith never went away. In the Bad Boys movies, he’s frantic and funny and brave and tired and utterly done with your bullsh*t. You cannot replicate the undistilled magnetism of a real star (plenty of bad Will Smith prestige dramas tried!)

Hollywood needs him too. Box office receipts this year so far are pitiful and many guaranteed hits have floundered upon release. Bad Boys: Ride or Die is a rarity in 2024, a movie-star-led action film surpassing already high expectations. Ultimately, that will matter more to the studio heads than the slap. Can you make money and can we somehow claim the credit for it?

Will Smith is going to be fine. He has a few projects in development, and I imagine it’ll be easier to get them greenlit now than it was two weeks ago. Audiences are rooting for him. He’s still an Oscar winner with commercial appeal, and the world wants more than a solemn apology tour. There will certainly be some who never jump back on the Big Willie Style train, but they’re not the majority. Many saw them as right after the slap. It’s the millstone that will be around Smith’s neck for the rest of his life, but he makes carrying it look easy as hell.