The Great Debate with I Am Legend
Right now, the two most celebrated movies in theatres starring black actors are The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington and I Am Legend with Will Smith. Yesterday I made an appearance on NPR's News and Notes hosted by Farai Chideya (shot out to Devin over at NPR!), where I had the esteemed honor of discussing the "debate" over The Great Debaters with Casey Lartigue and Mark Anthony Neal. (You can listen to the show here, or search for News & Notes at the iTunes music store and download it to your iPod for free-fifty-free.)
One of the issues surrounding The Great Debaters was its miniscule box office success compared to I Am Legend's record-setting numbers, which is understandable because Denzel and Will are arguably the two most bankable black actors in Hollywood, so it's only natural we would compare the two. As Ms. Chideya suggested, this could be because more people are into escapism and that's why they choose to go see I Am Legend over The Great Debaters. Mr. Neal also pointed out that most people don't like to see historical films unless Leonardo is in them. I agree with both of these theories, but I want to discuss the Will Smith side of things here on Broke Thought$.
As I said on the show yesterday, I never felt like The Great Debaters was made to do major numbers at the box-office. It was a passion project, and the fact that it has received some mainstream media love is a success in itself. The other thing about the film is it already carries this certain sense of importance. The previews alone scream, MESSAGE, so a lot of black folks are going to see this movie not just because Denzel is in it, but because (and I know I'm generalizing here, so forgive me) they don't want to feel like assholes for not seeing it.
Meanwhile, I Am Legend carries no such air of importance, at least, not at first glance. But if you really take the time to look at this blockbuster film, you can't ignore the subliminal significance of Will Smith's passion project.
I Am Legend suggests that if the world should start coming to an end, there is a good chance that because you're black or brown or just flat out non-white, you might be the last to know, and even if you did find out early, you're not getting on that bus. You're getting left. And that's not being racist, that's just keeping it real. When armageddon is looming, there will be a waiting list to get on the buses headed to safety, and because black and brown folks are at the bottom of any pecking order that betters human life, why would a seat on the bus to safety be any different?
But if I can be serious for a moment here, with the exception of Ali, Will Smith always seems make his characters racially ambigious. He's black, because we see that he's black, but his films are never intended solely for a black audience. They're always marketed to be bigger than that. But when I watch his films, I'm always looking at things within the context of his race.
In I Robot, another film he produced, I always thought his role as a rogue cop was a tad bit ironic. Here we have a black man exhibiting a blatant prejuidice towards another kind. He's basically racist towards robots, if one could be such a thing. Like white cops (and in some cases black cops, to keep it all the way real) profile black civilians, Will's character in I Robot profiled robots, had a hunch they were no good. Then, you look at I Am Legend. Will Smith is playing the "last man on earth" (although, if you'veÂ seen the movie, you already know this isn't entirely true). I'm sure I'm not the only one who sees the significance of I Am Legend's hypothesis.
In my eyes, Will Smith's characters will always carry more meaning than he probably intends for them to and that's why I continue to support his films, includingÂ I Am Legend. Sure, most of his movies depict him carrying a gun and blasting it on fools, , but if you look closer, you can see they're much deeper than that.