Postlude to a Kiss: Will Smith's Performances of Race and Sexuality in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation
by Willie Tolliver
Bright Lights Film Journal
Will Smith now occupies a position in Hollywood that is unrivaled by any other black performer. His films over the last eighteen years have grossed more than $5.3 billion, more than any other actor, with the exception of Johnny Depp (Smith 31). He commands a salary in excess of $20 million per film, which places him in the highest stratum of bankable actors. Consistently over the last decade he has been the highest ranking black star on annual lists of power figures in Hollywood.1 His success is in certain ways unprecedented. Even more than this, the meaning of his star status has historical and cultural implications that have not been fully examined. Smith's ability to reach such varied audiences, both domestic and global, is an indicator of evolving attitudes about race. The types of roles he has accepted and in which audiences are willing to accept him (savior of mankind, the last man on earth) have done interesting cultural work in terms of redefining concepts of black identity in general and of black masculinity specifically.
This discussion contributes to an examination of the Smith phenomenon by taking another look at his first major film performance in Fred Schepisi's Six Degrees of Separation (1993). Smith's casting as the hustler who impersonates the son of Sidney Poitier has a particular rightness; Smith is indeed the inheritor of Poitier's legacy in terms of breaking new ground for blacks in film.2 Poitier won visibility and dignity for black representation in Hollywood film; Smith extends and complicates this legacy as his performances engage racial representation as it intersects with class, gender, and sexuality. This complex of issues contained within Smith's screen personae sustains his iconicity, and these valances of significance find their source in his seminal performance as Paul Poitier in Six Degrees of Separation.
Based on a series of actual incidents reported in The New York Times in 1983, the story of the film and the play details the encounter of a New York power couple with a young black man who cons and charms his way into their lives for an evening by impersonating the fictional son of Sidney Poitier.3 Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a private art dealer and his wife who are entertaining a possible investor in a crucial sale. They are burst in upon by the doorman and a young black man (Will Smith) who is bleeding from a knife wound to his side. It turns out that the intruder is a Harvard classmate of their children. They administer first aid, and he begins to talk. He persuades them to stay in, and he will prepare a meal. This he does and in the process dazzles them with his conversation. He discourses on The Catcher in the Rye and the death of the imagination. On top of this, it turns out that his name is "Paul," and he is the son of Sidney Poitier. It is a magical evening, and the deal is sealed. Subsequently, they discover that Paul Poitier is not who he claims to be and that several of their friends have had similar experiences with him. The path of their investigation into the real identity of this strange young man leads them to a friend of their children named Trent (Anthony Michael Hall), a student at M.I.T. He admits to befriending this Paul and sharing his knowledge of their lives with him. This seems to be the answer, but it doesn't begin to explain what has happened to them and how their lives have been profoundly affected.
Paul also seems to have had an effect on Smith as there are distinct parallels between their narratives. I argue that in his ascendant trajectory Smith replicates Paul Poitier's project of attaining celebrity and social status. Indeed it could be said that Smith learns valuable lessons about how to succeed in the mainstream from the character he portrays, and then he surpasses him. Paul insinuates himself into the white and privileged world of the Kittredges through canny and deliberate strategies to overcome the two salient aspects of his identity that might otherwise prove to be barriers: his race and his sexuality. He does so through a process of minimizing his race and sexuality while at the same time subverting conventional notions of those identities. Similarly, Smith's broad-based stardom is predicated on his choice of film characters whose racial identities are non-threatening and whose sexuality is muted or erased, especially given the hyper-sexualized stereotype of black men in film.
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