Every so often new heroes emerge, but they do not come out in the traditional sense that a white America might suppose. In an old Popmatters article titled “I Am Obama: The American Imagination and the New Black Hero,” (http://www.popmatters.com/feature/i-am-obama/) the relevance of a black hero still functions into today’s culture efficiently; however, this certainly begs the question of why does Hollywood use Will Smith for his role in I am Legend, and what exactly is the function that Will Smith’s “blackness” plays into the American imagination?
- The “coolness” of the black persona: The “cool” behavior portrayed by the black community has been around long before Will Smith’s career, and it will most likely follow beyond his legacy. The point is that Will Smith’s role in the movie I am Legend could of be easily played by any actor (White, Hispanic, Asian, etc), but Hollywood chose the popular black persona option for this role–especially since the character in the 1954 novel that the film is based off (Robert Neville) is a Caucasian alcoholic. Why is this decision made? This decision clearly reflects the success of the film after it grossed over 250 million dollars in the box office in 2008 (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0480249/). The black protagonist gathers a larger audience rather than the usual White-America audience, and Will Smith’s success in his previous films help generate this audience and some more. This “coolness” aspect is a relic of the 1970s and 1980s when the ideology of blacksploitation became relevant in American society and taken advantage by Hollywood blockbusters such as the famous Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.(http://www.geeksofdoom.com/GoD/img/2011/08/2011-08-09-han_lando_empire.jpg)
- How does it work? CONTINUED: Billy Dee Williams, the actor of the famous role Lando Calrissian, is probably the most important example of black “coolness”. The strategy is the use of an extremely popular black spokes person and place him/her in a situation that slightly mutes their sense of community, and offers the individual an opportunity for redemption or self-sacrifice. With Lando Calrissian, the audience is exposed to his coded lingo and attitude towards his established world. He is a reminder of a smooth, “cool” late 1970s/early 1980s black representative, but toned down and suited better for the white established audience/world he resides in. Will Smith is exactly this in a sense that he represents a black culture of the late 2000s, but his community/culture remains vague or politically correct. This strategy takes many aspects into consideration: the mysterious, fear fueled stereotype of the white audience, the collaboration of a multiracial audience attending the theaters, and the ability to tell a compelling story know this audience. Hollywood can not allow an established black man to propagate his “blackness”, nor can Hollywood create a complete white persona out of a black man. Will Smith’s job is to regulate his “blackness” by keeping a black facade around his white interior. This facade in I am Legend is kept in place through many different examples: his passion for Bob Marley, his coded speech, and his impersonation of the character Donkey from Shriek.
- Conclusion: Although he maintains a black facade throughout the film, Will Smith still keeps the stereotypical role of sacrificing himself; however, his sacrifice is different as it is the benefit of humanity through the prevail of his armored persona (a scientist). This specific persona is what the majority of the film uses to neuter the race conflicts, and it establishes the vague community that he finally creates at the end of his sacrifice. This community is the haven established in Vermont that Smith will never be apart of, but prevails through his actions justified by his scientific superiority. However, these actors are used to generate revenue, as their appearance could easily be substituted by anyone of any different gender or race. The steps to harnessing these actors is the challenge, and once accomplished the producers are heavily rewarded.