Monthly Archives: December 2013

Christmas Meeting – Julie Lobalzo Wright speaks on ‘What does he have left?’: Will Smith as the eternally young Fresh Prince

Our Christmas meeting will take place on Wednesday 11th December at 5.30pm in G19, Arts One. We look forward to seeing you there!

‘What does he have left?’: Will Smith as the eternally young Fresh Prince

Will Smith has been one of Hollywood’s most popular and bankable stars over the past thirty years. Beginning his career as part of the rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince in the late 1980s, he seamlessly transition to television starring on the popular television series, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air from 1990-1996. Playing the character of “Will Smith”, a teenager from West Philadelphia, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air expanded his rap stardom, but did not deviate from his “Fresh Prince” image as part of the rap group. In the mid-1990s, Smith appeared in the blockbuster films Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997), cementing his place as one of Hollywood’s new stars. Although his career has suffered some failures (For instance, Wild Wild West (1999) and After Earth (2013)), his stardom has endured, demonstrating the capacity for his star image to deepen (Dyer, 1998) in the 2000s when he appeared in serious films such as Ali (2001) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006). This more adult onscreen image was matched off screen with his marriage to actress Jada Pinkett in 1997 and becoming a father to son Jaden in 1998 and Willow in 2000. The family, including his son Trey from his first marriage, has become the centrepiece of Smith’s star image, co-starring in films with his children (The Pursuit of Happyness, I am Legend (2007) and After Earth), but also including the family in most of his promotional appearances.

On the surface, Smith’s star image appears to have aged, appropriately, from teen rapper to mature Hollywood star and finally, dotting dad, but while these transitions have occurred, in actuality, his star image has not greatly changed from the mid-1980s to today. The young, hip, but overly childlike Fresh Prince image is still evoked today, both in films (especially Smith’s return to the Men in Black series in 2012’s Men in Black III) and personal appearances. This was especially evident throughout the promotion of After Earth, a science-fiction film he co-starred in with his teenage son, Jaden, as Smith often joked with his son as though they were peers. The success of Men in Black 3, and the perfect fit between Smith’s star image and the Agent J character, and the failure of After Earth, a film which presented Smith as a father guiding his son to safety, suggests audiences are most accepting of the juvenile Smith image: flippant, impulsive and humourous.

This paper will explore Smith as an example of a star who may be unable to age due to race and his initial stardom. Beginning his career as a non-threatening image of black masculinity, Smith is confined by his Fresh Prince image and unable to explore more complex black characters (especially in comparison to Denzel Washington). Furthermore, his recent promotional appearances that feature the star rapping the infamous theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air display fans’ nostalgia for Smith’s younger image, and although an accomplished actor and father, the Fresh Prince is inescapable.

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