It seems strange in hindsight that Will Smith didn’t always have an Instagram page. Indeed, one of the most famous and beloved figures in modern Hollywood completely lacked social media pages for the longest time. Sure, his wife and kids had them and were prolific in their posting, but here was a medium that seemed tailor-made for Smith to let loose, and he was absent from it. With only 64 posts to his name and 8.1m followers to boot, Smith has taken to Instagram like a duck to water. He’s nailed the tricky balance of celebrity social media with ease, but remains definitively the Fresh Prince. As he has done throughout his career, Smith uses the platform to showcase his irrepressible goofy-cool charm. He’s a total dad, embarrassing his kids and singing loudly in public, but he’s also otherworldly rich and not afraid to show off the benefits of wealth. Few figures in celebrity can swing so wildly from relatable dude to idolised marvel, but it’s all just another day for Will Smith.
Go through those 64 posts and you’ll see Smith (and his team) formulating their social media strategy. The first few images are Smith on The Ellen Show and most don’t have captions. It’s not until he and Degeneres recreate a scene from one of his early music videos that he starts to add words. Soon, there are the prerequisite baby photos (‘Ya’ll ain’t got no filters like this’), the fun promotional selfies for his latest movie, the video of him completing a Rubix Cube, plenty of Throwback Thursdays and family selfies that remind you of how exceptionally good looking the entire Pinkett-Smith clan is. The videos get longer, the approach more relaxed, and the work so inimitably Big Willie Style. Even his food-grams are fun.
Instagram is arguably the preferred social media of the celebrity world because it offers a greater degree of control and creativity. With Twitter, the urge is always there to get into political scuffles, dogpiles and tantrum fights with journalists. The instant gratification of Twitter can yield some unsavoury results, but it can also make you seen frightfully boring. People can tell when your publicist is doing all the tweeting, and while it’s way safer and I’d argue more advisable to do so, it makes one’s fight for so-called authenticity somewhat moot. That’s not to say that Instagram is any less controlled by publicists and the like, but it’s easier to make it seem ‘real’. Instagram puts you front and centre, it lets you write paragraphs of text if you so desire, and it gives you a more distinct aesthetic thanks to myriad filters. Yeah, your tweets on issues of the day may do well, but an artfully styled selfie on Instagram will fly further.
The issue of authenticity is an interesting one when it comes to Smith’s Instagram, because there are clearly many cooks around this particular pot. Many of his videos are sharply edited and filmed professionally, more akin to TV comedy than the modern vlogger. Production values are surprisingly high, and there’s clearly a lot of planning behind most of them. Most parents embarrass their kids with some old baby photos: Smith does it by recreating his son’s music video, beat for beat. When Smith does his inspirational montage to get ready for the Eagles to play in the Super Bowl, it’s easy to overlook the time, effort and man-power that went behind making it, mostly because Smith is so darn charming. There’s part of you that can easily imagine Smith sitting with Adobe Premiere and making sure every cut is timed perfectly. You know that’s not what happened - his PR team don’t need to let him do all the work - but it seems perfectly reasonable.
Instagram also gives Smith a platform to do something that his films have been lacking in for the past few years - be WILL SMITH. I’ve talked before about how unusually mediocre Smith’s career is, given that he’s so universally beloved and was for a good decade or more a reliable box office draw. The best Smith movies are ones that allow his effervescent personality to shine through, undisturbed but not unaided. Think of how good he is in Men in Black because he actually has foundations of a character to bounce off. There are glimmers of that joy in Suicide Squad but the film is way too self-important to embrace that goofiness. Bright is an evil we do not speak of. And Collateral Beauty… Well, we can’t even begin to get into what went wrong there.
For someone so famous, with the freedom to take whatever roles he wants, Smith is oddly risk averse. Given his status as one of the few black men in Hollywood with billion-dollar clout, perhaps he feels that he has to play it safe, although that supposed security has delivered diminishing returns. It’s been far more beneficial in his acting career for him to just keep playing Will Smith (for my money, Ali was the last time he truly acted as someone who was in no way ‘Will Smith’). When Hollywood won’t make the movies that allow that anymore, what do you do? What better way to do that than embrace the freedom of social media?
The internet has made unlikely stars out of strangers, but it has also breathed new life into familiar figures. Patrick Stewart amps his Shakespearean darling credits up to goofy new heights; Jeff Goldblum has become an oddly inspirational figure of handsome oddballs everywhere with his colourful jerseys; now, Will Smith is being the Fresh Motivational Speaker Dad of the online age. Memes can keep you in the public consciousness for months if they’re don well. Most of Smith’s Instagram videos practically beg to be turned into gifs to spread the joy further. I wonder if Smith and his team looked at what The Rock was doing and hoped to replicate that superstar shine. This has been a way for him to not only give his fans what they want but to build on that brand of ‘The Will Smith Type’ and make it something that we want to go viral. We are attracted to figures who seem to be having a really good time with their life - The Rock, Patrick Stewart, Jeff Goldblum, Sam Neill and his pigs, Taika Waititi - and endless fun is Smith’s game. He’s a meme of positivity and dad-goofball charm as it is, so why not make that material available to the public?
We’re not especially revved up for any of Smith’s future movie choices. It does seem a waste for him to not take some wild chances (wouldn’t you love to see what Will Smith could do in a Spike Lee movie, or something totally outside of the blockbuster realm, like early era Ava DuVernay?) Yet it’s clear that there is a Will Smith that audiences want, and few films offer that now. There is a demand and Will Smith will supply everything through a more direct medium. It’s just as well he’s so damn good at it.