By Laura Aish, Film & TV Digital Editor
Will Smith has been a household name for nearly 30 years. Characterised by his PG, goofy humour, and musical abilities, his fame has only grown exponentially over the years. He serves as an example of the ability for black stars to navigate genres and mediums with continued success.
If asked, I expect almost every child from the nineties could recite the intro song to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990 – 1996) from memory. Growing up, the show was a part of weekday evening routine for many – myself included – when the children’s television shows finished and the Fresh Prince entered the screen.
Will Smith, born Willard Carroll Smith in 1968, initially started out in hip hop music as part of the now iconic duo consisting of The Fresh Prince, Smith’s onstage persona, and DJ Jazzy Jeff, whose real name is Jeffrey Townes. The duo rose to fame in the late 1980s and early 1990s and their music was known for its humour and lack of swear words.
These upbeat and playful elements have largely followed Smith throughout his career. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air utilised many of these established aspects in Smith’s creative approach and situated them within a television context. The show adeptly balanced discussions around race, class and family relationships alongside humour.
After his success on the small-screen in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, Smith’s career moved towards cinema screens. This led to a string of nineties classics: such as Bad Boys (1995), Independence Day (1996) and Men in Black (1997) to name but a few. These films rocketed Smith’s career towards what it is today.
In the 2000s, Smith adopted a slightly more serious tone to his films by taking on biographical film projects, such as portraying boxer Muhammed Ali in the film titled Ali (2001) and then acting alongside his son Jaden Smith in a drama about motivational speaker and entrepreneur Chris Gardner, The Pursuit of Happyness (2006).
Upbeat and playful elements have largely followed Smith throughout his career
In late 2017 Smith became a Youtuber, notably one of the first A-list celebrities to truly embrace the medium, which significantly lessened the boundaries between celebrity and viewer even more. On the channel Smith posts vlogs, behind the scenes videos and a retrospective pieces called ‘storytime’ where he shares memories from his career and life.
More recently, Smith took on the role of the Genie in the live action reimagining of Aladdin (2019) – a role formerly played by the late Robin Williams in the 1992 animation of the same name – as well as started work on a new film project called Gemini Man (2019).
[Smith] significantly lessened the boundaries between celebrity and viewer even more
Gemini Man, directed by cinematic visionary Ang Lee, the man behind films like Brokeback Mountain (2005) and Life of Pi (2012), has an interesting concept. It involves Smith acting opposite a younger 23 year-old version of himself.
The concept is especially interesting given the fact that it has now nearly been thirty years since Smith first took to the screen in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – which was his first real screen appearance. In many ways, it is a strange contrast of where his career started and where he is now.
Smith’s career has encompassed many different mediums including music, television, cinema and now most recently Youtube. No matter what platform he takes on – he brings his own unique humour, style and creativity to it every time.
This article is part of Epigram Film & TV’s Black History Month coverage. Over the course of the month, we will be featuring stories of pioneering black figures in cinema and highlighting some must-watch pieces of black cinema.
Featured: IMDb / Antony Jones
Which is your favourite of Will Smith's recognisable roles?