Will Smith didn’t want to play Muhammad Ali. It’s not that he wasn’t intrigued by the role—he just felt incapable of portraying such a monumental figure. “Intellectually, I didn’t feel that I possessed what it took to become Muhammad Ali,” the actor told ABC’s Primetime in 2001, adding that he “absolutely, positively did not want to be the dude that messed up the Muhammad Ali story.” It took several assurances from Ali director Michael Mann and personal requests from Ali and his family, but Smith eventually accepted the role, packing on muscle, enduring grueling boxing training, and mimicking everything from Ali’s form to the rhythm of his speech. Smith transformed into Ali, embodying the man he referred to as “the greatest figure over the last 100 years.” And he was good.
Ali is essential to the mythology of Will Smith, the Movie Star. By the turn of the millennium, he’d already experienced extreme box office success, but Ali—clear Oscar bait with a Christmas Day release—was the moment when Smith staked his claim as a serious actor. Although it failed at the box office, it was a success for Smith because he’d conquered his biggest acting challenge to date. None of his previous roles had the gravitas of a real-life figure known worldwide for his exploits, in and out of the ring. It was another form of validation that the rapper turned unlikely TV star turned ultimate movie star craved and was ultimately rewarded with: Smith’s performance was nominated for an Oscar, which he ultimately lost to none other than Denzel Washington.
But the two decades since Ali have been more up and down for Smith than expected, featuring miraculous highs and a period of unmoored stagnation. He holds the record for the most consecutive films to gross over $100 million at the U.S. box office, with eight between 2002 and 2008. But Smith’s past decade has been defined by commercial misfires and the emergence of cracks in the Will Smith facade he worked so hard to construct. Now, 20 years after Smith took on Ali, he’s grasping for Hollywood glory again by playing another polarizing sports figure. In King Richard, which hits theaters and HBO Max on November 19, Smith plays Richard Williams, the bold father of Venus and Serena Williams, who coached his daughters up to be two of the most important athletes in sports history. It zeroes in on the period Williams spent during the 1990s pushing his daughters up the mountain, which ruffled feathers in a tennis world that remains rattled by his presence and threatened by his daughters. Smith is going for it all once again, but the stakes this time are different. Instead of trying to establish himself for the sake of credibility, he’s looking to rebound from a stretch when he no longer appeared invincible, at a time when celebrity is viewed much differently than it was when he first broke through.
The tale of Will Smith’s ascent can’t be told without exploring his run of playing various law enforcement figures. He took the suavely aspirational Black man in a position of institutional authority model that Eddie Murphy rode to success in the ’80s to another level. Bad Boys, released in 1995, was his first crack at movie stardom in which the charm he brought to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was adapted to create a hero cop fantasy. Mike Lowrey is the archetypal cool guy who broke the rules, drove a Porsche 911, had women in the palm of his hand and everywhere else (to the point that infamous lothario Lil Wayne later compared himself to him), and was revered for all of the above. In 1997’s Men in Black, Smith played a cop who’s recruited to join a secret agency that surveils aliens. As his Agent J says during the film, he brought style to the job, making him the perfect complement to Tommy Lee Jones’s stoic intergalactic agent. (It also didn’t hurt that Smith used his rap career to boost the film’s promotion by way of a multi-platinum single bearing the same title.) Smith’s savoir faire had immense mass appeal—Bad Boys, 1996’s Independence Day, and Men in Black have grossed over $1.5 billion worldwide—and that dynamic extended to the sequels of Men in Black and Bad Boys, which were the first two films he appeared in after Ali. He also played a cop in 2004’s I, Robot and a superhero who works with them in 2008’s Hancock—two more of his eight consecutive films that topped $100 million domestically. In 2016, he played an imprisoned mercenary working as an instrument of law enforcement; a year later, he played another cop in Bright, and in 2020, he returned to the Bad Boys franchise by stepping into Mike Lowrey once again.
Smith has been open about his formula. He explained it during a 2015 appearance on The Hollywood Reporter’s Awards Chatter podcast, in which he recalled telling his manager, James Lassiter, that he wanted to be “the biggest movie star in the world.” The two devised a strategy by examining the 10 biggest box-office successes of all time. “It was always special effects, there was always creatures, there was always a love story,” he said. “So we started looking for movies that had special effects, creatures, and a love story.” He added that he didn’t want to act so often “that you turn people off” and acknowledged that a film with too many creatures could prevent the audience from taking the acting seriously. (Apparently 2007’s I Am Legend, which set a record for the largest opening for a non-Christmas film in December, had just the right amount of creatures.) This jump-started Smith’s takeoff during the mid-’90s and facilitated his dominance during the aughts—when even slight deviations like 2005’s Hitch and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness were tremendously successful.
However, Smith’s Midas touch began to fade during the 2010s. The same strategy that made Smith a superstar had been rendered obsolete. He stuck to the script after his break between 2008’s Seven Pounds and 2012’s Men in Black 3, but audience’s interests and the types of movies that were green-lit and promoted had begun to change. The list of movies he and Lassiter used as the blueprint for his ascent in the ’90s were no longer the most successful movies in history, having been passed up by franchise behemoths like Harry Potter, Avatar, and of course, The Avengers. It took years of trial and error for him to realize that the playing field was vastly different, leaving a trail of poorly reviewed stabs in the dark behind him. 2013’s After Earth was hammered by critics and grossed over $243 million worldwide at a time when crossing a billion dollars was considered blockbuster success. It took until 2016 for Smith to get involved in the superhero industrial complex, and when he did, it was with Suicide Squad, a decent box office win, but also one of the worst-regarded superhero movies of the decade. And although 2019’s live-action version of Aladdin, which featured Smith as the Genie, grossed over $1 billion globally, it still didn’t feel like a triumph.
Perhaps worse than the dwindling returns, though, was the fading image of Smith as a cool, can’t-miss movie star. Mr. Blockbuster was in an extended creative rut. Bad Boys for Life was one of the highest-grossing movies of 2020, but it still let Lowrey off the hook for his recklessness in a year of intense scrutiny regarding law enforcement’s treatment of Black people and serious questioning of whether police are necessary at all. After Earth was substandard at best. Concussion, the 2015 film in which Smith played the forensic pathologist who battled the NFL’s dismissal of his CTE research, failed to cash in on award-season buzz or mounting criticism of the NFL. Smith was good in Suicide Squad (which built on the chemistry between he and Margot Robbie that radiated from the screen in 2015’s Focus), but it was a narrative mess—as were Bright and 2019’s Gemini Man, the latter of which resulted in a massive loss for Paramount. Meanwhile, Aladdin, to little surprise, paled in comparison to the animated original despite Smith’s presence. A clear line between box office success and celebrity standing had been drawn, and the former had increasingly less to do with the latter as the 2010s progressed. Smith had become the movie star he always wanted to be, one big enough to coast on the laurels of his celebrity. But by the time he could gaze comfortably from the top of the blockbuster mountain, it hardly existed as he knew it.
“Smoke and mirrors in marketing and sales is over,” Smith said during a 2016 Cannes Lions session. “People are going to know really quickly and globally whether a product keeps its promises.” In that same session, Smith admitted that he began prioritizing success over artistry during his rise. He also referred to himself as a “marketer,” said that his success was based on being able to sell his “products’’ globally, and identified what he believed to be a major shift in Hollywood: “The power has gone away from the marketers.” It was easier to promote bad movies in the past because there were no tools for audiences to react in real time. The advent of social media changed that, which Smith acknolwedged. “Now what happens is 10 minutes into the movie, people are tweeting, ‘This is shit, go see Vin Diesel,’’’ he said during the Cannes Lions session.
And as blockbuster films began to rely more on the selling power of their intellectual property than that of the names on their posters, an empowered public also opened the concept of celebrity up to greater scrutiny. Even though we collectively maintain an unhealthy appetite for mess (i.e., the reaction to the “entanglement” that Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, was revealed to be involved in), a global pandemic that has emphasized the demarcating line between the wealthy elite and literally everyone else is among the factors that has forced people to interrogate their relationships with celebrity. As a result, Smith—whose focus on positioning makes perfect sense considering that he’s been so calculated about being famous for so long—has been forced to reassess his own.
No longer does Smith have to hide behind his public persona. Nor is he able to: Social media has removed the barrier between celebrities and their audiences. The public knows far more about who Smith is behind the veil—the rough patch in his marriage; his relationships with his children; his feelings about his own father—than ever before. But as the evolution of social media has given celebrities a different mechanism for control, the ever shrewd Smith and his family have learned how extra exposure can be leveraged to their advantage. Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch show driven by Pinkett Smith, her and Smith’s daughter, Willow, and Pinkett Smith’s mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris, is as much an image-control apparatus as it is a place for intergenerational dialogue. Smith’s own appearance at the Red Table during the entanglement fallout emphasizes this. Meanwhile, Smith has utilized social media to rebrand himself as Gen X Influencer Dad, manufacturing authenticity for iPhone screens instead of movie screens. “It completely changed how I interacted with the world and how I interacted with my creative life,” he recently told GQ. Smith’s evolution remains fluid. His film career still fits into this new paradigm, but the difference is that it’s less of the driving force behind his celebrity than it was in 2001. It’s a line item in his overall portfolio.
That’s where King Richard fits in. The times have changed, the sport is different, but, similar to Ali, he’s taking another big swing. Only now, his persona no longer rests solely on the success of his movies. It’s taken Will Smith a decade to figure out the lay of the new land, but now that he finally has, his movies are less of a defining proposition than they were when he ruled a foregone iteration of Hollywood.
Julian Kimble has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Undefeated, GQ, Billboard, Pitchfork, The Fader, SB Nation, and many more.