The Oscars

Does it matter if Will Smith is actually the best?

His Oscar-nominated role in ‘King Richard’ is far from his best work

By the time Sunday night creeps into Monday morning, Will Smith may be an Oscar winner.

If Smith wins the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Williams in King Richard, it will mark 15 years since the last time a Black man took home the award — Forest Whitaker won in 2007 for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland.

And yet, even as a longtime admirer of Smith, all I can muster for this potential triumph is resignation.

Smith, 53, has formidable competition this year: Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Andrew Garfield (tick, tick … BOOM!) and Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth). Of course, nothing is certain. In 2017, Washington seemed a sure bet to win for his portrayal of Troy Maxson in Fences. He won the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) prize that year and it appeared to signal that Washington would be collecting his third Oscar. Instead, the trophy went to Casey Affleck for Manchester by the Sea. This year, Smith is walking into the Oscars having collected BAFTA, SAG, and Critics Choice prizes.

Will Smith (center) has already won BAFTA, Golden Globe, SAG and Critics Choice prizes for his role in King Richard.

Warner Bros. Pictures

Playing charismatic cops and an alien-annihilating soldier made Smith a movie star of a now-dwindling variety: the leading man who became everyone’s favorite without having to chart a path through superhero stardom. With Smith at the helm of an action flick, no one needed to be guided toward rooting for him. It came naturally. And just as Smith was feeding his audience, we were feeding him, too.

The need to be liked is an affliction common among actors, and that includes Smith. Take Rita Moreno, for example, who has been so decorated that she is now a PEGOT — the winner of Peabody, Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards. During a 2021 60 Minutes interview, Moreno, the original Anita in the 1961 West Side Story, and an executive producer of and actor in Steven Spielberg’s best picture-nominated 2021 remake, revealed something profound. She long carried deep insecurities about herself, stemming both from the fact that her agent raped her when she was 17, and because of the racism she experienced in America.

“I grew up filled with self-loathing because I was Puerto Rican,” Moreno said. “When you’re little and you’re told you’re not worth anything, you believe it. … The be-all, end-all is self-respect, which took me a long time to earn.

“I could pretend I had self-respect,” Moreno said. “I’m an actress.”

Like Moreno, Smith has been pretending for a long time, something he revealed in promoting his memoir, Will, and while campaigning for King Richard. In a 2021 GQ profile, Smith calls himself a coward and admits that, for much of his public life, he has been hiding behind a facade. He declares himself to be a different, more self-assured man who isn’t concerned with being liked, but with telling the truth.

I don’t buy it. 

The very thing that undermines Smith’s performance in King Richard is a palpable need to be liked. It radiates through the screen with such clarity that he appears to be acting in a different movie from the rest of the cast. There is a lightheartedness to King Richard, one that gets signaled from the first moments of Kris Bowers’ score. The sunny, major-key strings of the movie’s opening may not be as earwiggy as say, that of Driving Miss Daisy, but the mood is similar. Paired with Smith’s voice-over, King Richard follows its leading man from scene to scene, court to court, rejection to rejection. This, the music lets viewers know, is a hero filled with naivete and pluck. And yet Smith spends nearly all of it with his brow furrowed uncomfortably. We can feel him acting at us, through a pained accent, through a certain tightness in his body. But evidence of effort should not be confused with interiority. Smith might think he’s playing light as a feather, stiff as a board with his audience, but he’s still doing it with a safety harness.

Will Smith’s performance in Ali was not superficial imitation.

Victory Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

Good acting is not something that springs, fully formed, from natural ability, which Smith obviously possesses. Talent is a starting point. But it must be coached, coaxed, cultivated. It must stretch and breathe, and most importantly, it must be challenged. Smith, by his own admission, has spent the past 15 or so years trying to recapture the glory of his megawatt young adulthood as he attempts to transition from pretty boy action star to something with more gravitas. King Richard is a bright spot amid a string of recent duds, but it does not come close to the dramatic apex of Smith’s career: his 2001 portrayal of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali.

When that deep need to disarm, to be liked, to entertain, to give everyone what one thinks they want, to seek external validation, is paired with capital and ego, it can lead to painful, all-too-common decisions: producing and starring in self-aggrandizing projects that are devoid of the depth and intellectualism they telegraph about themselves. For years, Smith has turned out laborious performances in leaden movies, a number of which were obvious Oscar bait. Among them: The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), Seven Pounds (2008), After Earth (2013), Focus (2015), Concussion (2015), Collateral Beauty (2016).

It has been frustrating to witness, because for so long, Smith was such an easy, pleasurable leading man with whom to spend a couple of hours. Smith’s deficiencies in King Richard reveal what’s been missing since the height of his ’90s and early 2000s stardom. Since then, Smith hasn’t done enough work with directors who know how to capitalize on his strengths and build on them, who can draw out revelatory elements in performers that they are unable to see in themselves — folks like David Fincher, Dee Rees, Steven Soderbergh, Barry Jenkins and Steve McQueen. The last time he did, in the 2001 epic biopic Ali, directed by Michael Mann, the results were extraordinary. (Ang Lee’s messy Gemini Man (2019) was more along these lines, but was undone by the Avatar effect: visual effects that far outstrip everything else about the movie.)

Smith’s strengths mapped quite well onto Ali. Both men were handsome, well-liked and in possession of a jubilant, commanding arrogance. They could comfortably wield the boastful self-promotion of a fly emcee. But Smith’s performance in Ali was not superficial imitation. The rigor he poured into the role was evident in the transformation of his body, in his adaptation of Ali’s uniquely rhythmic speaking cadence, in the ease and comfort of his screen presence. Smith truly met the challenge of playing The Champ. His light shone brighter with talented scene partners too, among them Jamie Foxx, Mario Van Peebles, Jeffrey Wright, Giancarlo Esposito and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

Smith was nominated for best actor for his portrayal of Ali, but he lost to Washington, who won for the role of Alonzo Harris in Training Day. I remember Black fans of both men being disappointed because of the racial politics surrounding the win. Rather than being awarded for Malcolm X, Washington won his accolades by playing a truly loathsome antihero

In retrospect, though, Washington’s performance in Training Day is a phenomenal one. The sensuous Mississippi Masala smokeshow with the easy smile successfully morphed into an unhinged, corrupt narcotics cop. He was absolutely, spine-tinglingly terrifying, and he was excellent at it. As such, Washington opened the door a little wider for the Black actors coming behind him. He won without having to be likable, and in doing so, broke down strictures of dignified role modeling. Washington could be human. Flawed. Scarier than King Kong. He could take chances, be audacious, and he trusted that his audience would appreciate it. So what if Alonzo Harris was an awful human being? If Anthony Hopkins could win an Oscar for The Silence of the Lambs, then why shouldn’t Washington have won for Training Day?

Twenty years later, Smith and Washington are once again nominated in the same category. This time Washington is nominated for playing a man goaded into grabbing power through bloodshed, doomed by both matrimony and prophecy in The Tragedy of Macbeth.

Will Smith (left) and Jaden Smith (right) in The Pursuit of Happyness.

Columbia Pictures/Everett Collection

It’s one of those Oscar narratives that’s too good not to indulge, a passing of the torch from reigning king to middle-aged prince, with the latter rewarded for taking a stab at the sort of challenge for which the former was rewarded. It’s a simulacrum of historic symmetry, though, nothing more. Smith never fully committed to Williams as an antihero. It would have made for a far more interesting character study if he had. In a 1997 interview with 60 Minutes, Oracene Price referred to her husband as a “benevolent dictator.” Now that is a role that’s ripe with tension. People are complicated beings. A person can be a loving, devoted father and someone filled with a justifiable rage and bitterness toward his home country. And what makes that story interesting is looking closely at how both things can be true, and the lifelong implications, for Williams, for his famous daughters and for his other children, too.

Richard Williams did not care what white people thought of him, and he still doesn’t. But it’s clear that Smith — even Smith as Williams — still does, and it has prevented him from reaching or surpassing the heights he established in Ali in King Richard. He connects with the “benevolent” part of Price’s description of her husband. But he struggles with the dictatorial elements. Smith is simply miscast — Richard Williams was an enigmatic, crotchety underdog. That’s not all he was, but it’s crucial to capture how Williams saw himself, how he was seen and treated by American society, and how the latter influenced the way he chose to interact with the public, with his family and with himself.

Williams is a dark-skinned Black man. He is country, but he is not a fool. Throughout his life, he’s been contending with all of the assumptions rich white people have of him before he’s ever said a word to them. Smith, on the other hand, has spent more time than not in the public imagination as an uncomplicated hero and sex symbol. In Hollywood Black: The Stars, The Films, The Filmmakers, author and historian Donald Bogle sums up the difference between Washington, Smith and the choices they made in their careers.

“Much like the young Denzel Washington,” Bogle wrote, “Smith made astute career choices. While Washington searched for challenging dramatic roles, Smith found films that had great commercial appeal without a pressing race theme and which cast him in a heroic mode.”

White people — and beyond that, and global audiences — have showered Smith with affection in the form of box-office receipts. (Bad Boys for Life was one of the highest-grossing and most popular films of 2020.) The charm that Smith relies on, and that so many of his most memorable roles rely on, is at odds with the essence of Williams, and Smith never quite bridges the dissonance. He just furrows his brow harder. It’s like watching Cory Booker try to be Jeremiah Wright. Even as a tale of fatherhood, King Richard lacks the tonal complexity of recent films such as Minari, The Father, Moonlight or Boyhood.

So what? What difference does it make if Smith wins a best actor Oscar for a performance that is the weakest in an otherwise solid crowd-pleaser? The Oscars are not a meritocratic enterprise, by any stretch. After all, they were created by the Hollywood studios in a union-busting effort. It is easy to be ambivalent about them, and the ceremony’s ratings dive in recent years suggests that that’s exactly what most people are.

But I cannot help but care. There is something profoundly broken with a system that may well reward Smith’s work in King Richard with the ultimate cookie, but, throughout this award season, has not duly rewarded his co-star, Aunjanue Ellis, who is nominated for best supporting actress, and who acts circles around her leading man. (Ellis was nominated for a BAFTA, but did not win, and her own union recognized Smith’s work in King Richard while ignoring hers in the supporting actress category entirely.) One can hope, I suppose, that the academy will offer up a pleasant surprise for Ellis, but I’m not betting on it.

Instead, I am placing my hope elsewhere. I am hoping that an Oscar win will give Smith the confidence and bravery to pursue future roles that are interesting, uncomfortable, unexpected, difficult and smart — roles that will spur him to build on the things that he does best, rather than simply rest on them. I hope an Oscar win leads him to work with directors who will demand that he stretch himself, that he be vulnerable, that he trust them, that he ditch the safety harness of being liked.

Is it unfair to expect more from him? I don’t think so. 

Will Smith has shown us his capabilities. Now it’s time for something new.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on Black life.