There is something odd about Will Smith’s decline in popularity. How did one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, an actor once nicknamed ‘Mr. July’ for his incredible streak of summer blockbusters, lose his box office appeal? These are Smith’s latest films: Aladdin (2019), Bright (2017), Collateral Beauty (2016), Suicide Squad (2016), Focus (2015), Concussion (2015) Winter’s Tale (2014), and After Earth (2013). With the possible exception of Aladdin, all more or less flopped or were panned by critics. (Fletcher 2017: unpaginated)
Some attribute Smith’s decline in popularity to the decline of the movie star in general. Among other things, social media and streaming platforms like Netflix have changed the way we consume films. Although this is true, in the case of Will Smith, this explanation misses the crucial point: the shift in the cultural significance of Smith himself.
To understand this, let us recall the theme from Smith’s breakout role, the iconic sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (Borowitz and Borowitz 1990-1996): a young African American teenager from ‘Philly’ is sent to live with his rich African American family in Bel-Air after getting in trouble with kids ‘from the hood’. The black Banks family lives in Bel-Air, one of the richest neighborhoods in America, where they employ a butler, sometimes ‘act white’, and essentially live out the American Dream. In a Žižekian sense, the entirety of the Banks family can be conceived as a fantasy masking the Real of social and racial Antagonism in the United States.
The character played by Will Smith, on the other hand, is something else entirely. Smith plays a fictionalized version of himself who goes by his own name, a rapper who plays basketball, wears flashy clothes, and constantly gets in trouble with authority, i.e. displays all the typical characteristics of a ‘troubled black man from the ghetto’, the figure that – more than any other in American culture – has come to symbolize the racial and economic divide in American society. This is where the sitcom draws its depth from: by inserting the very symbol of American conflict into a black version of the American Dream. This juxtaposition allowed the creators of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to explore questions of black identity and racism in a compelling matter. According to Žižek, the question at the bottom of racism can be concisely expressed by the phrase ‘che vuoi?’ What does the other want from me? In the Sublime Object of Ideology (1989) Žižek states:
We come across this ‘che vuoi?’ everywhere in the political domain, including the 1988 American election struggle in which, after Jesse Jackson’s first successes, the press started to ask ‘What does Jackson really want?’ Overtones of racism were easy to detect in this question, because it was never raised about other candidates. The conclusion that we are here dealing with racism is further confirmed by the fact that this ‘Che vuoi?’ erupts most violently in the purest, so to say distilled, form of racism, in anti Semitism: in the anti-Semitic perspective, the Jew is precisely a person about whom it is never clear ‘what he really wants’ – that is, his actions are always suspected of being guided by some hidden motives (the Jewish conspiracy, world domination and the moral corruption of Gentiles, and so on). (Žižek 1989: 127-128)
One of the strengths of narrative fiction becomes evident in this light: more than any other medium, it is apt to answer the question ‘che vuoi?’ What does the hero want? And what obstacles does he have to overcome to get there? So what does the ‘Fresh Prince’ want? There are two main conflicts in the sitcom. The minor one is between Will and his cousin Carlton. Throughout the show, Will makes fun of Carlton for acting too white. Whiteness in this context can be understood as a willingness to act in accordance with the dominant ‘white’ social order. Beyond this, what we see are two black teenagers vying for social status while trying to find the correct way to live in a supposedly ‘white world’.
The main conflict is between Will and Uncle Phil, the father figure in the sitcom. Uncle Phil not only represents the dominant social order, he also embodies the law: he is a professional judge. Will gets in trouble with Uncle Phil throughout the sitcom while clowning around and provoking him. Sometimes, Will makes valid points criticizing the dominant social order, as teenagers sometimes do. This is all well and good, you may say, but still, the question remains: ‘che vuoi?’ What does the ‘Fresh Prince’ want? Attention? Status? Drugs? Sex? Violence?
Arguably the most celebrated and memorable episode of the entire sit-com is Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse (Jensen 1994), where the topic of the absent African American father is addressed. In this episode, Will’s biological father, whom he hasn’t seen in years, suddenly returns. Will is exuberant and longs to connect with his dad. But he is disappointed in the end. When his father walks out on him once again, the camera pans to Uncle Phil. Will goes on a rant, breaks down in tears, and finally asks: “How come he don’t want me, man?” (Oderinde 2014: video) According to urban legend, this wasn’t in the script. Will Smith was overcome by emotion and started improvising. Upon seeing this, James Avery (Uncle Phil) just went ahead and hugged Smith. If you listen closely, you can hear a cast member crying in the background.
There is a debate online as to how much of this urban legend is true (Watt 2016: unpaginated), which misses the point: the fact that this myth exists at all speaks to the cultural significance of the scene. The episode culminates in a powerful twist: the answer to the ‘che vuoi?’ posed at the ‘Fresh Prince’ is not an answer at all, but a question. In response to ‘che vuoi?’ Will Smith produces a ‘che vuoi?’ of his own: “How come he don’t want me, man?”
In many ways, this “How come he don’t want me, man?” can be seen as the defining phrase of Will Smith’s career. What the ‘Fresh Prince’ effectively wants is to know what the big Other wants of him. Or phrased another way, what do I have to do to be accepted? To be loved? To be inscribed into the symbolic order? Or, posed yet another way: am I really what you say I am? ‘A troubled black youth from the ghetto?’ Taken to its extreme, this form of questioning can be seen as a kind of hysteria. As Žižek said in an interview in 2018:
Remember what hysteria is? To simplify it, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, society confers on you a certain identity. You are a teacher, professor, woman, mother, feminist, whatever. The basic hysterical gesture is to raise a question and doubt your identity. You’re saying I’m this, but why am I this? What makes me this?” Feminism begins with this hysterical question. Male patriarchal ideology constrains women to a certain position and identity, and you begin to ask, but am I really that? (Žižek 2018: unpaginated)
Of course, one could still contest: entertaining as it is to see the ‘Fresh Prince’ ‘hysterically’ provoke authority and pose questions pertaining to the self, does that really explain why he became at one point the biggest star in Hollywood? To understand this, we must examine another layer of Žižek’s analysis of anti-Semitism:
Jews are clearly a social symptom: the point at which the immanent social antagonism assumes a positive form, erupts on to the social surface, the point at which it becomes obvious that society ‘doesn’t work’ (…) the ‘Jew’ appears as an intruder who introduces from outside disorder, decomposition and corruption of the social edifice – it appears as an outward positive cause whose elimination would enable us to restore order stability and identity. (Žižek 1989: 143-144)
Does this not also apply – from a homologous American/fascist perspective – to the ‘Fresh Prince’? Or, more precisely, to his symbolic form, to the ‘symptom of America’: the black rapper from the ghetto, who in the most vulgar and direct way possible incessantly goes on about how society ‘doesn’t work’ – this symbolic figure embodied by the ‘Fresh Prince’ moves in with the ‘perfect’ Banks family – an intruder enters the American Dream – and introduces disorder. What is important to understand here is that Žižek does not literally mean that Jews are intruders who introduce corruption into society. What he means is that the fascist utopia of a perfect society without antagonisms only ‘works’ for the fascist when he also conceives of an enemy within the system. Žižek states:
The proper answer to Anti-Semitism is therefore not ‘Jews are not really like that’ but ‘the anti-Semitic idea of Jew has nothing to do with Jews; the ideological figure of a Jew is a way to stitch up the inconsistency of our own ideological system.’ (Žižek 1989: 49)
Society is not prevented from achieving its full identity because of Jews: it is prevented by its own antagonistic nature, by its own immanent blockage, and it ‘projects’ this negativity into the Jew. (Žižek 1989: 143)
This is the context in which the genius and success of the ‘Fresh Prince’ can be understood: Smith unabashedly slipped into the guise of the symptom of America, but because he filled this role with teenage hysteria – unlike gangster rappers, who embodied the symptom with vulgar variations of the theme ‘society doesn’t work’ – Smith inverted the symptom. Here we have to be precise. This is not to say that the ‘Fresh Prince’ is not a subversive figure from the perspective of the big Other. What is means is that his subversiveness is rooted in hysteria. There is no ‘hate’ or ‘will-to-power’ in the ‘Fresh Prince’, no radical idea in the actual content of his character, which must be examined separately from his form, which resembles ‘the symptom’ on the one hand, and a young teenager on the other: the ‘Fresh Prince’ is a teenager who continually questions and undermines both himself and authority, and yet is still drawn to authority (Uncle Phil), as is the ambiguous state of the hysterical subject, who, although he or she may provoke authority, nevertheless must presuppose the existence of an authority in order to do so, paradoxically confirming the other’s status as an ‘authority’ in the process. This is one reason why the hip-hop community never truly warmed up to Will Smith, despite the fact he had tremendous success as an MC. Unlike Tupac, Dr. Dre, and other gangster rappers, Smith didn’t point towards the Real of conflict in society. The clearest sign of this, and one that is often pointed out, is the fact Smith that didn’t curse in his rap-songs. As the usual narrative goes, Smith was a kind of watered-down, ‘hip-hop-light’ version for mainstream America. (HipHopDX 2017: video) Although this is true in a certain trivial sense, when it comes to truly grasping Smith’s incredible success, it misses the mark. On a deeper level, what made Smith so successful was not his lack of bad language, although this did make him more accessible. It was the way in which Smith managed to blend his rap persona with hysteria and thereby subvert the very symbolic symbol of societal conflict itself.
From the perspective of someone suffering from this symptom, this makes Smith a kind of healer: Smith hystericized a symptom that was linked to feelings of guilt, shame and fear for many Americans. By doing so, he made Americans laugh, question, and enjoy their own painful symptom, thereby providing relief. A look at Smith’s most successful films further elaborates this point: After The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Smith would go on to a star in numerous films and enjoy unprecedented success at the box office: Smith still holds the record for most consecutive films to gross more than 100 million dollars domestically with 8 (Mason 2008: unpaginated). The first of these films was Independence Day (Emmerich 1996). The question at the core of this film is once again: ‘che vuoi?’ But this time, it’s not posed at Smith, it’s posed at the ‘ultimate Other’: what do aliens want from us? One of the more memorable scenes in the film is when, upon seeing the alien for the first time, Smith punches it in the face and proudly proclaims: “Welcome to Earth!” In the most concise way, this scene shows the ‘positive effect’ of an alien invasion: when confronted with a common enemy, Earthlings unite. It is against the backdrop of an alien invasion that all differences amongst Earthlings – class, race, gender, nationality, etc. – necessarily pale. Aliens highlight our common humanity. This point of view sheds a new perspective on why Will Smith had so much success fighting aliens (Independence Day (1996); Men in Black part 1, 2 and 3 (1997, 2002, 2012)), Zombies (I am Legend (2007)) and robots (Wild Wild West (1999); I Robot (2004)).
By battling ‘inhuman others’ – while still essentially playing the same ‘funny’ character from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air – Smith found yet another way to subvert ‘America’s symptom’: through the juxtaposition of ‘the symptom’ with ‘actual aliens’, the viewer is relieved of the pain ‘the symptom’ traditionally causes pain by stating ‘society doesn’t work’.
There are a few notable exceptions in which Smith has managed to transcend the ‘funny guy’ from the Fresh Prince and slip into more serious roles. Twice, he has been nominated for an academy award. But here, too, the characters he portrayed, Muhammad Ali and Chris Gardner, are indicative of Smith’s persona. Ali (Mann, 2001) is the story of the world-class boxer who was stripped of his boxing license for refusing to fight in the Vietnam War. In a Žižekian sense, this is akin to being banished from the symbolic order, a kind of symbolic death. Incredibly, Ali would be resurrected thee years later, well past his prime, and go on to slay Goliath in the guise of George Foreman, for which he is now known as ‘The Greatest’.
The other film where Smith transcends his ‘funny guy’ role is the Pursuit of Happiness (Muccino, 2006) based on the story of Chris Gardner, a black man who would later become a millionaire but spends the bulk of the film desperately trying to get a job while taking care of his son and sometimes sleeping on the street. A hard-working father without a home, a heavyweight champ without a boxing license – one can easily see both of these characters at some point looking up and crying out: ‘How come they don’t want me, man?’ This is where Smith’s genius lies: in the way he has managed to look straight into the camera, in the guise of America’s symptom, and ask the world: ‘Am I really what you say I am?’
This is an excerpt from the article The Fresh Prince of Wakanda – A Žižekian analysis of Black America and Identity Politics, originally published in the International Journal of Zizek Studies, Volume 13, Number 2: http://zizekstudies.org/index.php/IJZS/article/view/1137
Julian Paul Merrill is a doctor living in Stuttgart, Germany. He is in training to become a child and adolescent psychiatrist. He is also the host of the Dialog ist tot Podcast and a writer.
Borowitz, S. and Borowitz, A. creators (1990-1996) The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, New York: NBC
Emmerich, R., director (1996) Independence Day, Century City, Los Angeles, CA: 20th Century Fox
Fletcher, R. (2017), Will Smith’s career has gone seriously downhill. But what happened and how can he fix it? Available at: https://www.digitalspy.com/movies/a817363/will-smiths-career-has-gone-seriously-downhill-but-what-happened-and-how-can-he-fix-it/ Accessed April 25, 2019
HipHopDX (2017) Why Hip Hop Hates Will Smith: The Darth Vader Theory, available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jWIsLNw-7LQ Accessed May 10, 2019
Jensen, S., director (1994) Papa’s got a brand new excuse, Season 4, Episode 24 of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, New York: NBC
Mann, M. director (2001) Ali, Los Angeles, CA: Columbia Pictures
Mason, S. (2008) Will Smith clinches record-breaking 8 straight $100M+ grossing movies, available at: https://web.archive.org/web/20080706151512/http://news.fantasymoguls.com/originalcontent/2008/07/early-wednesday.html Accessed April 25, 2019
Muccino, G. director, (2006), The Pursuit of Happiness, Culver City, CA: Colombia Pictures (Sony Pictures Releasing)
Oderinde D. (2014) How Comes He Don’t Want Me ?! Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gMNsMdnSBIk Accessed April 26,2019
Watt, A. (2016) Dispelling The Myth Behind The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air’s Saddest Scene, available at: https://www.unilad.co.uk/news/dispelling-the-myth-behind-the-fresh-prince-of-bel-airs-saddest-scene/ Accessed April 25,2019
Wright E., executive producer (1988) Straight outta Compton, track 2, Los Angeles, CA: Ruthless Records
Žižek, S. (1989), Sublime Object of Ideology, London: Verso
Žižek, S. (2018), Getting a Grip on Slavoj Žižek (with Slavoj Žižek), available at: https://daily.jstor.org/getting-a-grip-on-slavoj-zizek-with-slavoj-zizek/. Accessed: February 23, 2019