This Sunday, Peacock will premiere the first episode of Bel-Air, a contemporary, dramatic reimagining of the beloved ’90s sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. To mark the occasion, The Ringer is looking back on the legacy of the original series and the influence of the star who defined it, Will Smith. This is a story all about how pop culture got flipped, turned upside down. Welcome to Fresh Prince Day.
50. Wild Wild West (1999)
Every hot streak needs a heat check. My guy Will Smith was coming off a three-year stretch that included Independence Day, Men in Black, and Enemy of the State—so who can blame him for thinking he could also make Hollywood gold out of [checks notes] a Western-slash-comedy in which an evil genius builds a giant mechanical spider and attempts to dissolve the United States of America? Wild Wild West is terrible. Like, “one of the worst movies ever” terrible. And yet, it deserves a place on this list, because every once in a while you need to remind the people that even gods can fail horribly. —Andrew Gruttadaro
49. Suicide Squad (2016)
“What, we some kinda Suicide Squad?” —Deadshot, Suicide Squad
Smith dominated the ’90s and early 2000s with The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and a series of successful blockbuster films, but the actor made some … let’s say, questionable, choices in film roles during the 2010s. On paper, 2016’s Suicide Squad probably seemed like a great idea at the time: a star-studded cast, a superhero movie that promised to be different by focusing on the villains for once, and a writer-director who seemed up to the task in David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch). But from Jared Leto’s Joker (and his reported, though later denied, behind-the-scenes mayhem) to whatever the hell the plot revolving around the Enchantress was, Suicide Squad was an absolute mess.
Nonetheless, the film was a box office hit, thanks in large part to the star power of Smith and Margot Robbie. But even just last year, Ayer was still publicly criticizing the way Warner Bros. handled the theatrical release, declaring that “the studio cut is not my movie.” More than half a decade after Suicide Squad hit theaters, all I care to remember Smith’s Deadshot for is his love for then-New York Knicks president Phil Jackson and his triangle offense amid Jackson’s brief, disastrous reign in New York. —Daniel Chin
48. Gemini Man (2019)
In Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, Will Smith is at war with himself—literally. Playing an accomplished assassin facing off against his own, much younger clone, Smith pulls double duty with the aid of CGI. As a blockbuster, Gemini Man does flex a few standout action sequences, including a scene in which the Smiths engage in something that Lee aptly describes as “bike-fu.” But the film suffers from the limitations of its computer graphics: The more time that’s spent on the de-aged Smith’s bizarrely smooth and expressionless features, the more the character approaches the uncanny valley. (It doesn’t help that Smith remains one of the most charismatic actors in Hollywood, making his CGI’d counterpart look like he was plucked from a video game cutscene.) But in spite of its flaws, Gemini Man is a fascinating exploration of Smith’s career, and of what happens when an aging movie star looks at himself in the mirror. —Miles Surrey
47. Men in Black II (2002)
Men in Black II has: Johnny Knoxville as an alien with a second head (also Johnny Knoxville) protruding from his neck; a 600-foot subway worm named Jeff; Rosario Dawson as a waitress who is secretly an alien princess; Michael Jackson and Martha Stewart playing themselves; and a civilization of diminutive aliens worshiping Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) as their god. With all the WTF moments in this wildly uneven movie, Smith’s Agent J doesn’t stand out like he did during his first go-around. As is often the case with sequels, Men in Black II had a hard time living up to the original, up to and including Smith’s newer (and slightly inferior) bop. —Surrey
46. Aladdin (2019)
Smith might have decades of receipts to prove he’s a serious box office draw, but the live-action Aladdin presented one of the toughest challenges of his career: filling the shoes (er, the lamp?) of the late Robin Williams. Voicing the Genie in the animated Aladdin was arguably the best performance of Williams’s superlative career, and if that wasn’t daunting enough, Smith had to portray the character while caked in blue paint, making him look like a Smurf who’d been pumped with too much HGH.
Aladdin, my man: same.
But even though the movie is actively working against him, Smith does his best with the Genie’s garish CGI and delivers, taking the character in a new direction rather than trying to imitate Williams, which would’ve been a losing battle. If we’re being honest, the new version of “Friend Like Me” is a certifiable banger if you just close your eyes through it. (Or listen to the audio-only version on YouTube.) My one wish is that Disney gave Smith the special effects that his surprisingly solid performance deserved. —Surrey
45. Homebase (1991)
DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s fourth album, released as Smith was becoming a full-blown sitcom star, features some of the duo’s biggest hits. In 1991 and 1992, “Summertime,” “Ring My Bell,” and “The Things That U Do” were played over and over on radio across the country. There was also “You Saw My Blinker,” a song suburban kids considered edgy because Smith does something in it that he normally doesn’t do: swear.
The duo put out one more album of original material, 1993’s Code Red. “Boom! Shake the Room” was on it; that was pretty huge–but Homebase was their true last hurrah together. —Alan Siegel
44. Concussion (2015)
I commend Concussion for trying to shine a light on traumatic brain injuries that happen in America’s biggest sport. Will Smith actually delivered one of the better performances over his career, proving he doesn’t have to be funny or over the top to be effective. But an overly dramatic narrative that’s cliché in all the wrong spots took away from an important topic. While the movie spiked more discussion and awareness around concussions, not much has changed since the film’s release. —Arjuna Ramgopal
43. “Friend Like Me” (2019)
Let’s get this out of the way: It was gonna be impossible for Will Smith to fill the Shaq-sized shoes of Robin Williams’s Genie from Aladdin. Williams was built for it. To be fair, Will Smith literally tried to build himself into character and was more or less successful (dude looks like a blue Aaron Donald).
If someone could feasibly make “Friend Like Me” work, it’s Big Willie Style. His energy is vibrant. His bars are of the Kidz Bop variety, but hey, this is a Disney flick. The horns still slap. He convincingly sells himself as a pretty good friend for, you know, a manipulative genie. I mean, I’ve always wanted a friend who could beatbox like Doug E. Fresh, pull a magic carpet out of a hat, and reenact Kid ’n Play dance moves. The movie may have disappointed, but this tune ain’t half bad. —Keith Fujimoto
42. “Switch” (2005)
So it turns out that “Switch” is kind of my “Shazaam”—it was only while writing this that it sunk in that (a) Will Smith’s 2005 single isn’t part of or related at all to his contemporaneous film, Hitch; and, relatedly, (b) Hitch does not have the same plot as Adam Sandler’s Click … weird! At any rate, “Switch” combines Smith’s signature peppy, PG-rated bounce with a mid-aughts devotion to the dance floor. (And, in the video, a mid-aughts style.) If you really squint your ears, it has elements of another song 10 spots above it on 2005’s Billboard Year-End Hot 100 chart: “Pon de Replay.” It’s one of those songs that always sounds like it’s on repeat, but in a catchy way. In “Switch,” our narrator stands on the edge of the dance floor, looking respectfully. “Something sexy ‘bout a girl on the floor, all her friends around her,” he muses, then hastens to add: “I mean, real clean, ain’t gotta touch or nothin’.” Great song; courteous king. —Katie Baker
41. Shark Tale (2004)
After watching his dad make “mature” movies like Ali, Men in Black II, and a Bad Boys sequel, Will Smith’s middle child, Jaden, then 6 years old, had a request for his über-famous father.
“Daddy, you gotta make something for me to see.”
Papa Smith took those words and turned them into one of his most illuminating performances to date. In the 90-minute film, he plays Oscar, a bluestreak cleaner wrasse fish, with dreams of seeing his name atop Southside Reef. He does so by proclaiming himself a shark slayer, cashing in a blatant lie. His acclaim gives him cash, access, and a deluxe apartment in the sky, but it doesn’t quell the guilt he feels about the lie he created. The plotline wasn’t dissimilar to Smith’s inner conflict during the first decade of his career. In order to reach his desired stardom, Smith built a carefully manicured persona that made him the biggest star on the planet, yet couldn’t erase the pain he was attempting to eradicate.
“What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating M.C., the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction,” he wrote in his autobiography, Will. “A carefully crafted and honed character—designed to protect myself.”
What makes this performance particularly interesting is how much Oscar foreshadowed Smith’s personal life. Like Oscar, everything in Smith’s life began to crumble when he prioritized ambition over balance. In his early 2000s quest for thematic dominance, his marriage began to crumble, his movies suffered, and he felt everything he’d built professionally meant nothing. But like Oscar, all of Smith’s problems began to subside when he started loving what he saw in the mirror. —Logan Murdock
40. “Ring My Bell” (1991)
This fizzy and extra-frictionless jam from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s 1991 album Homebase is not the best single on that record (that’s “Summertime”), nor is it any improvement on Anita Baker’s 1979 disco-ecstasy original (that’s ridiculous). But this new “Ring My Bell” is an endearing barrage of sweet talk all the same, in which the Fresh Prince steals a young lady away from her inattentive boyfriend via such PG-13-at-worst quips as “Where he at now? / You don’t know / Layin’ up under some ho—ld up wait / Just let me chill / No need for me to get ill.” And there is, indeed, no need for a budding superstar this effortlessly lovable to get ill. Check out the effervescent video for the finest 1991 had to offer in cordless- and car-phone technology. —Rob Harvilla
39. Welcome to Earth (2021)
About 15 minutes into the premiere of Welcome to Earth, Will Smith meets his first volcanologist. The volcanologist explains that they’ll be descending into Mount Yasur, an active volcano in the Pacific island country of Vanuatu that we’ve watched billow and rumble and pitch in slo-mo 4K for the past five minutes or so, to install some sensors by hand. The camera pans to Smith, now 53, and lingers expectantly, hoping for an outsize Smith reaction, a “sensors for WHAT” or some kind of acknowledgement that he was about to enter the gates of hell unprovoked, but all we get is a bit of exasperation at the edge of a wince. Smith folds his arms behind his back and patiently waits for the volcanologist to doodle their game plan in the dirt with a stick.
It was at this exact moment I decided this show would have benefitted from more uncles and fewer foremost experts. Not that they don’t all do their jobs capably, but Smith is kind of just there, being a tourist with no one to gape at. Even Smith describing the volcano to a blind companion feels a little awkward and stock-still; it has all the parts of a unique and powerful experience, but then I’d rather just watch a scoreless “Oddly Satisfying” video of molten lava on YouTube. Just imagine if he would’ve brought Martin Lawrence along for the ride. Instead, Earth falls somewhere between earnest and playful, and ends up feeling like a moving SkyMall catalog. —Micah Peters
38. “Will 2K” (1999)
The second single from Smith’s second studio album, Willennium, “Will 2K” was pretty much guaranteed to succeed. For one, it has a ridiculously catchy sample from The Clash’s “Rock the Casbah”—but instead of repeating those original three words, Smith has featured singer K-Ci repeat “rock the dance floor.” Imagine listening to this at a house party on New Year’s Eve in 1999; you were either having the time of your life or anxiously spiraling over the lyrics (“Man I remember when the ball dropped for 90, now it’s 9-9, ten years behind me / What’s gonna happen? Don’t nobody know / We’ll see when the clock gets to 12-0-0, chaos, the cops gonna block the street”) In any case, dated lyrics and all, “Will 2K” still lives up to its placement on Smith’s greatest hits album released in 2002. It might not be as iconic as his earlier work with Jazzy Jeff or other singles like “Miami,” but it’s one of those tunes that randomly pops up at a function every now and then gets you nodding along. —Aric Jenkins
37. Focus (2015)
I don’t understand why this movie gets so much hate. As someone who has rarely let a movie involving heists, thieves, and/or con artists pass him by, I loved Focus on first watch and continue to on subsequent rewatches. Does the final third lag, and only vaguely make sense in some sections? Yes. But there’s nothing more fun than sitting and watching people pull off cons or a big score and then break it all down for you. Tell me this isn’t fun as hell. Nearly every scene with Nicky (Will Smith) and Jess (Margot Robbie) crackles with chemistry. And every instance of Nicky being a seemingly out-of-control risk-taker while his protégé tries to drag him back to reality is enthralling. The first hour-plus is a dizzying ride of cons and misdirections that gets your pulse racing.
But that pesky final section—including an absurd and potentially plot-breaking amount of double crosses—drags the movie down. So come into this movie for the fun outfits, the intense “Is there any chance Nicky hasn’t thought this all the way through?” moments, and the energy between Robbie and Smith, which was palpable enough that it sparked affair rumors. Bring some popcorn, and probably a drink or two, and you’ll have a fantastic time. —Kellen Becoats
36. Hancock (2008)
While doing press for Hancock back in 2008, this is how director Peter Berg explained why the movie appealed to him: “I loved the idea of an alcoholic, nihilistic, subversive superhero, fighting crime drunk.” He even compared the title character to Nicolas Cage’s in Leaving Las Vegas.
This is a Will Smith blockbuster? On the surface, it doesn’t feel like it. But by the end of the 2000s, he was clearly ready to dabble in antiheroism. It was nice to see him once again playing a wiseass, something that he’d seemingly outgrown long before that. Smith seemed to have fun flying around like a sauced-up, surly, profanity-spouting Superman. Hancock, which despite middling-at-best reviews made $629 million worldwide, didn’t exactly work—it’s a R-rated action comedy in the body of a PG-13 one. But it’s at least different. And that’s what made it interesting. —Siegel
35. Spies in Disguise (2019)
What does Will Smith, B-plus animation, birds, and Tom Holland all combine to make? Spies in Disguise. Smith’s most recent foray into animation produced a more compelling film than Shark Tale, but one that was largely ignored when released. Will voiced a suave super spy who gets turned into a bird and has to navigate espionage as a pigeon. There are the usual hijinks that every family-friendly animated movie has, coupled with a few emotional beats to keep you invested. Calling it a weird movie would be an understatement, but it’s quick and enjoyable enough to pass some time. Just don’t expect Pixar-level storytelling here. —Ramgopal
34. “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” (1989)
Sometimes I think we underrate Mike Tyson’s reign as Baddest Dude in the World. From the moment he knocked out Trevor Berbick in 1986 through his spectacular fall against Buster Douglas in 1990, Iron Mike was a mythic figure, as famous and fearsome as any man who had ever put on boxing gloves. This was the universe “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” was released into, where the idea of stepping into the ring with Tyson was so scary it quickly became comical. A decade before Tyson made his first official appearance on wax, Will recruited the boxer and his promoter Don King to appear in the video for the song, which finds the pride of Philadelphia channeling his inner Rocky and attempting to go toe-to-toe with the champ. “I Think I Can Beat Mike Tyson” starts with Will running his mouth, before ultimately backtracking and barely escaping with his insides intact. When asked why he bolted, Will offers sage wisdom: “A good run is better than a bad stand any day.” There’s a lesson in there—and it’s one that Marvis Frazier and Michael Spinks and Peter McNeeley all could’ve used a little sooner. —Justin Sayles
33. Will Smith’s Instagram (2017–present)
Will Smith is one of those follows on IG that you don’t remember when or why you started following him, but you do vaguely remember opening the app one day and seeing his account as the second or third post on your feed and thinking, “Huh, I must be liking this dude’s posts pretty frequently for him to be this high up.” At some point in the past five years, Will Smith swapped out being a reliably bankable movie star for being an Instagram meme god. I don’t know if he has an elite communications firm doing his bidding (probably) or if he’s just incredibly web savvy, but the man can ‘gram.
Admit it, we’ve all been following Will’s “Best Shape of My Life” journey on Instagram with great interest. And if that’s not for you, there are gorgeous stills from his new Nat Geo documentary series Welcome to Earth or snippets from Red Table Talk. Will isn’t just relying on his celebrity to do numbers on IG; he’s earned that follow. —Jenkins
32. Men in Black 3 (2012)
The last entry in the Will Smith Men in Black trilogy has largely been forgotten due to a failed attempt at a crossover with 21 Jump Street and a horrid spinoff, MIB: International. But the 2012 movie was actually a pretty fun time and a redemption from Men in Black II. Sidelining Tommy Lee Jones for most of the movie probably wasn’t the best idea, but Will still got to be the lovable Agent J across from a more than capable Josh Brolin. A wacky villain, time travel, and an emotional arc about father-son relationships highlights Smith doing what he does best: having fun while providing a little bit of drama. —Ramgopal
31. “Boom! Shake the Room” (1993)
“Both this song and the album it came from are considered the hardest Smith ever went,” wrote some dry joker on Genius, “although of course that is a very relative comparison.” The fifth and final DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince album, 1993’s Code Red, is indeed a (relatively) more pummeling and virile affair, as evinced by this boisterous single in which a cuddly sitcom superstar hits the club, scopes out the ladies, and then raps, “I see the one I want / I said ‘Come here cutie’ / I flip her around and then I work that booty.” The sample of the Ohio Players’ “Funky Worm” is an insidious earworm indeed, and Smith is tremendously charming even at his most macho and semi-deep-voiced. His final verse, in which he feigns nervousness and stutters a lot (“So I just try to ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-ch-chill”) is mildly insensitive but a semi-catchy tune all the same. —Harvilla
30. “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” (1986)
A little bit of Slick Rick mixed with a hefty dose of Grandmaster Caz, “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” lives on as one of DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s most enduring hits, despite it being the first song ever released by the duo. Built around a sample of the I Dream of Jeannie theme, the Rock the House single plays like a PG-13 “La-Di-Da-Di,” with Will recounting ill-fated trysts with Sheila, Exotic Elaine, and his girlfriend, Betty. (Of the three, we can give Betty a pass; all she did was make Will miss the Run-DMC show, whereas Exotic Elaine got him beat down by the cops.) “Girls Ain’t Nothing but Trouble” isn’t the most deft storytelling rap has ever produced, but it’s a fun showcase for Jeff’s (highly influential) scratching abilities and Will’s charms. (Seriously, picture any other ’80s rapper selling the “hell of a guy” line like Will did.) The song would later be rerecorded and tacked onto Jeff and Will’s colossal sophomore album, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. The grittier original is still available on YouTube, and while it doesn’t pop as immediately as the MTV-approved version that would help break his career wide open, the billion-dollar charisma was undeniable in any form. —Sayles
29. Willennium (1999)
This album was a meme, right down to its title, but also this album was very real. Will Smith had Dru Hill jigging in full-body leather over “I Wish” with Stevie Wonder on the keys in the music video. He had Eve rapping double-time over “Workin’ Day and Night.” For the real heads nostalgic for DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, he even had a nice little throwback to “Charlie Mack (The First Out the Limo).” But primarily Will Smith had K-Ci belting the word “Willennium” in all seriousness. What a time. Will Smith went double platinum with a rap album essentially rated PG—not even PG-13, but PG. Nas will never hear the end of so many rumors and jokes about him ghostwriting Big Willie Style, and yet we rarely discuss Masta Ace’s role in Willennium, an album full of oversung hooks and unsung heroism. —Justin Charity
28. Bad Boys for Life (2020)
As a self-professed Michael Bay hater, I’m hardly the target audience for Bad Boys for Life, which makes it all the more shocking that the movie is … genuinely touching??? The mindless Bayhem that defined the first two entries in the franchise takes a backseat to Mike and Marcus finding themselves at a crossroad. Basically, Mike is kind of washed and doesn’t want to admit it, even after he’s nearly killed on the streets of Miami by a gangster who’s later revealed to be his son. (Smith being repeatedly bested by someone who’s basically a younger version of himself also makes Bad Boys for Life an odd companion piece to Gemini Man.) It’s emotional, it’s explosive, it’s got Martin Lawrence saying “Mike, you fucked a married witch?!” All told, Bad Boys for Life is a near-perfect blockbuster: a reminder that Mike Lowrey, and the star who plays him, can still bring their A-game. —Surrey
27. I, Robot (2004)
Another great movie in which the future is scary, the past is uncomfortable, and Will Smith gets annoyed at white people for holding out on useful bits of information. There can’t be any serious complaints on I, Robot because it’s a movie that barely takes itself seriously. Shia LaBeouf is a hang-around teenager in Smith’s apartment building who’s worse at cussing than the left fielder in Mr. 3000. Chi McBride’s police precinct has a giant glass case in a chief’s office for the express purpose of a single scene when Chi McBride uses a pump shotgun to dispatch several androids gone haywire with a well-placed blast through each facade.
Is I, Robot dumb? Absolutely. But prime action-hero Will Smith didn’t need a premise to be smart or even effective—he could carry the whole thing with quips. There’s a scene when he asks one too many questions and gets escorted out by building security. As Smith and the two guards step out of the elevator into the lobby, one places a hand on Smith’s leather duster coat. “So what hospital are you going to? I’ll meet you there so I can sign you and your buddies’ casts.” —Peters
26. Amend: The Fight for America (2021)
When I saw Will Smith as the presenter of this project, I was a bit skeptical. That’s not to say that Smith can’t handle serious subjects; I was just a bit worried that he might detract from the show’s message. But he, alongside famous faces like Mahershala Ali, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and Laverne Cox, help bring history to life with impassioned readings of speeches and historical documents. This is not really a show you can binge, with episodes slowly progressing through the adoption of the 14th Amendment to the Civil Rights Movement to the fight immigrants currently face to stay in this country.
This show is a revelation, with a wonderful blend of historians, famous images, and narration from well-known voices weaving an enthralling tapestry of history. As a self-professed history nerd, I couldn’t recommend this show enough, especially if you’re looking for something fairly new to watch during Black History Month. —Becoats
25. Red Table Talk (2018–present)
For a glorious, short period of time, if you were a celebrity and you had an issue—you went on Red Table Talk. After launching in 2018, Jada Pinkett Smith’s DIY talk show quickly became ground zero for a kind of intimate, transparent celebrity damage control you’d never see on Today or The View. Jordyn Woods went on Red Table to talk about being castigated by the Kardashians; Olivia Jade Giannulli went on Red Table to talk about Operation Varsity Blues; T.I. went on Red Table to clarify comments he made about his daughter.
But in the most iconic moment in the web series’ run, Jada and Will Smith themselves went on Red Table after rapper August Alsina claimed that he and Jada had an affair. The resulting conversation is somewhat hard to parse and definitely weird—the friendliest thing I will say about the Smiths’ thoughts on marriage is that they’re quite Californian. But it is also stunningly frank—at one point, Will forces Jada to clarify that by “entanglement” she means “romantic relationship”—and raw in a way celebrities rarely are. Sure, it’s still two famous people actively crafting a narrative, and profiting off of it by doing so on their own Facebook-branded web series. But hey, at least they had the guts to do it to your face. —Gruttadaro
24. Jaden Smith (born in 1998)
Biologically speaking, Will Smith made Jaden Smith, but in a much larger sense, he also made Jaden Smith. Will started his son’s acting career by putting him in The Pursuit of Happyness at 8 years old (he also pretty much ended it by putting him in After Earth seven years later). From there, Jaden has proven himself to be quite the weird whippersnapper, a post-millennial multi-hyphenate. He raps, he stars in New Balance ads, he sells water in cartons. Syre is a legitimately decent album. One time he tweeted, “If Everybody In The World Dropped Out Of School We Would Have A Much More Intelligent Society.” Not all ideas are good ones, but Jaden Smith has a lot of them, and that’s something. Something that we can ultimately thank (or blame?) Will Smith for. —Gruttadaro
23. “A Nightmare on My Street” (1988)
Long before Men in Black and Wild Wild West, Will Smith was making hits about big movies. This spooky tale about Freddy Krueger haunting the Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff’s dreams, which reached no. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, nearly landed on the soundtrack of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4. The track even features a sample from Charles Bernstein’s Nightmare on Elm Street score. There’s even a scary video:
Unfortunately for Smith, the song ended up being a horror show. New Line Cinema sued for copyright infringement. There was a settlement, and after that, a disclaimer was added to He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper claiming that “A Nightmare on My Street” had nothing to do with A Nightmare on Elm Street. Alas, Smith’s next attempts at making movie-themed music were less fraught. —Siegel
22. Wild Wild West theme song (1999)
It may seem paradoxical that “Wild Wild West” the theme song is ranked this high, given that Wild Wild West the movie barely made the list. After all, Wild Wild West the movie contains “Wild Wild West” the theme song. How can one part rank higher than the whole? The answer is that the other parts that make up the movie only drag it down. The song, which played stupefied spectators out of theaters as the credits rolled, lifts liberally from Stevie Wonder’s “I Wish” and Kool Moe Dee’s earlier song with the same title and pairs those samples with Smith’s verses and song-stealing guest vocals from Dru Hill’s Sisqó, mere months before his “Thong Song” solo breakout. The resulting track may have won a Razzie for Worst Original Song—nearly the last one awarded, as if there wasn’t a way to sink lower—but it also went to no. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and helped propel both the Wild Wild West album and Willennium into the top five of the Billboard 200. In this case, the customers were right. And while the video doesn’t make up for Smith’s decision to star in Wild Wild West instead of The Matrix, it is a well-choreographed classic that features not only all of the artists who appear on the song, but Alfonso Ribeiro to boot. —Ben Lindbergh
21. Hitch (2005)
Basic principle: It’s hard to find a movie from the early 2000s that isn’t a little cringe. And I won’t lie to you, dear reader, I was scared to return to this film in case it was significantly more problematic than I thought when I was younger. But this movie holds up and then some; there’s so much to love about Hitch. For example: Will Smith doing his perfect “I’ll never believe in love … wait, is that Eva Mendes?!” impression; Kevin James chasing a woman who’s seeming wildly out of his league only to win her over not with the dating advice he’s received but instead his goofy ass personality; and great acting by a talented cast that includes Jeffrey Donovan playing a Wall Street asshole who unwittingly sets up a fun third act of the film. It doesn’t seem like it should work, but it congeals into a solid rom-com.
The jokes are fairly crisp, James’s dancing is believably awful and the date at Ellis Island is legitimately moving. Plus, the final dance line scene alone is worth the price of admission. —Becoats
20. King Richard (2021)
Will Smith wasn’t sure he’d ever make anything as good as The Pursuit of Happyness, which got him his second Oscar nomination in 2007. “I thought I had reached my artistic pinnacle,” he told The New York Times.
The thing is, the Times was calling to ask him about his third Oscar nomination.
As Richard Williams, the strong-willed, hardheaded father of Venus and Serena, in King Richard, Smith reinforces what makes him one of the biggest stars on the planet—his ability to put a movie on his shoulders is unparalleled. But instead of channeling his confidence and presence as he did when he was younger, here he harnesses the extreme dad energy he cultivated during the last decade. He is steely, wise, a little bit goofy, a lotta bit frustrating, but most of all invested. King Richard is the first movie to show a viable future for late-stage Will Smith; to prove that, sometimes, an artistic career has multiple pinnacles. —Gruttadaro
19. “Miami” (1997)
Unfortunately, I’ve never “partied in the city where the heat is on.” I’m unfamiliar with the place where “the bass and the sunset glow.” Never experienced “the city that keeps the roof blazin.’” I’m a Knicks fan, so I was not fuckin’ with the Heat in 1997. And Miami, by association, was someplace I had no genuine interest in. That is, until I heard “Miami” by Will Smith.
The beat is an infectious, smooth groove and Smith’s bars could be memorized by every travel agent trying to get their client to cop an all-expense package to South Beach. The music video is like Miami’s unofficial travel brochure. (Minus all the morphing edits, there’s no need for all that, music video director.)
The “Jiggy Era” of hip-hop is often frowned upon these days. But where else could you get imagery like this: “Take a walk on the beach, draw a heart in the sand / Gimme your hand.” —Fujimoto
18. I Am Legend (2007)
Some of Smith’s most iconic roles have come in films in which he has a screen partner, but for the vast majority of I Am Legend, he’s all alone in a deserted New York City—save for his German shepherd, Sam, a bunch of mannequins at a video store, and the ever-looming hordes of vampiric mutants who threaten all that remains of humankind. Smith turns in a brilliant performance as Dr. Robert Neville, a U.S. army virologist who doubles as humanity’s last hope and potentially the only remaining human in the world after a virus infects 99 percent of the world’s population. He does a incredible job of portraying Neville’s creeping loneliness and depression as he hopelessly attempts to create a cure in the terrifying years after the end of civilization, and Sam’s eventual death remains as one of the more devastating scenes in Smith’s illustrious career since that heartbreaking moment in Fresh Prince first gave the world a glimpse of what the actor would be capable of in the years to follow.
Though its final act and disappointing ending detract from an otherwise strong film, I Am Legend is still Will Smith at his finest; without it, we never would have been graced with Smith re-creating an entire scene from Shrek to the surprise and great concern of two strangers. —Chin
17. The Pursuit of Happyness (2006)
I watched Pursuit of Happyness for the first time at the Regal Theatre in Oakland’s Jack London Square with my dad a few days after its release. It was on a $2 Tuesday, which meant the crowd was packed. The movie, starring Will Smith and his son Jaden, chronicles a father and son surviving in 1980s San Francisco. The setting, plotline, and familiar landmarks made me think about all the adventures with my single dad. The spontaneous games of catch on the way to another errand, the BART rides into The City when he went to pay a bill, and the strengthening bond we were cultivating right there in the movie theater. Whenever I see Will’s portrayal of Chris Gardner, I see my father in it. But more importantly, I’m affirmed by how great he was. —Murdock
16. Willow Smith (born in 2000)
When she was 5 years old, Willow Smith joined her dad and brother on Oprah and, with her gap-toothed grin and boundless confidence, stole the show. (Her father’s demeanor in the clip is amazing—quintessential “dad terrified of his daughter” energy.) She had just turned 10 when she whipped her hair back and forth on Ellen. Since then, she has flourished creatively, collaborating with Nicki Minaj, her brother Jaden, Travis Barker, Tyler Cole, Avril Lavigne, and, most recently, Machine Gun Kelly. Her aesthetic is her own and her voice is unforgettable:
She is part of one of the most fascinating vlogcasts there is, Red Table Talk, which she hosts with her mother and grandmother. She has used the platform to interview people like Paris Jackson and Olivia Jade, and also to needle her parents about the time she walked in on them. “It was silhouetted,” she explained, and that was unforgettable, too. —Baker
15. Big Willie Style (1997)
By 1997, the Artist Formerly Known as the Fresh Prince (as his first solo album refers to him within the first 30 seconds) was arguably the biggest movie star in the world: Bad Boys in ’95, Independence Day in ’96, and Men in Black the same year as his first official solo album, which has a ridiculous title (with Left Eye on the title track!) and multiple monster singles (including the insidiously delightful “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” his first no. 1 hit) and only the slightest hint of insecurity. (“Don’t Say Nothin’” is a Fuck The Haters–type deal that does not, of course, use the f-word.) As cuddly and resolutely inoffensive pop-rap frivolity goes, you could do far worse than (oof) Big Willie Style, and plenty of people did. (Plus “Miami” totally holds up.) And if he’s a hip-hop veteran who still sounds here like a superstar actor moonlighting as a rapper, that’s the best problem anybody’s ever had. —Harvilla
14. “Parents Just Don’t Understand” (1988)
It’s funny ‘cause he’s the goofy old Instagram-obsessed parent now. It’s funny because this bubbly little ode to teenaged exasperation (from DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince’s 1988 smash He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper) won the first Grammy for Best Rap Performance. (The duo boycotted the ceremony because that award—the first awarded to hip-hop—wasn’t televised.) It’s funny because every line delivery, from “I asked her for Adidas and she bought me Zips” to “Mom? Dad? How was your trip?” suggested the Fresh Prince had a future in smash-hit sitcoms, too. It’s funny because a goofy rapper later lambasted by Eminem for his squeaky-clean image first broke out with a song that ends with Smith getting arrested for driving a Porsche with no license and a half-dressed 12-year-old girl in the passenger seat. It’s funny because the funniest line delivery in this song might be “We ordered two Big Macs and two large fries.” He was America’s sweetheart, even if was smacked up a bit in the end. —Harvilla
13. Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
Smith plays Paul, a con artist who deftly scams his way into the lives of rich people on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. One of the most brilliant things about Smith’s performance is that he seems to understand exactly what kind of enthusiastic, faux intellectual bullshit his character needs to feed his marks in order to hook them. Take, for example, this monologue that he delivers about Catcher in the Rye:
About 10 seconds into the young man’s enthusiastic five-minute long speech, which isn’t nearly as profound as he presents it as, all the wealthy adults in the room are rapt. In Six Degrees of Separation, an adaptation of John Guare’s play of the same name, Smith is an actor who’s basically playing an actor. And he’s as charming to the audience as Paul is to the people who he’s scamming. —Siegel
12. Men in Black theme song (1997)
The first of Smith’s end-credits raps was also his first song since 1993, his first release sans DJ Jazzy Jeff, and the lead single from his first solo album, Big Willie Style. Built on a sample from Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Nots” and featuring a rerecorded chorus by Coko, the track topped the U.S. airplay chart for four weeks and earned Smith the third of his four Grammys. It also anticipated all of the audience’s possible sources of confusion. What does MIB stand for? Men in Black. Who are they? They’re galaxy defenders. And how do they defend us? They walk in shadow, move in silence, and guard against extraterrestrial violence. Frankly, it couldn’t be clearer. Unlike Patrice Rushen, who wants you to remember, the Men in Black won’t let you remember. Fortunately, even the neuralyzer Smith triggers at the end of the video couldn’t make us forget one of his catchiest tunes. —Lindbergh
11. He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper (1988)
I’ve lived to see the YouTube comments describing “A Nightmare on My Street” as “real hip-hop.” Let this be a lesson in the passage of time sooner or later making a mockery of us all.
That said, He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper is a musical feat and a genre milestone. This isn’t just the smoothest album Smith and Jeffrey Townes made together. It is, for better or worse, a master class in rap crossover. This is the album that won Will Smith his first Grammy for “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” a goofy and swearless song about adolescent indiscretions. This is the album that turned Will Smith into a household name and prefigured his commercial longevity, despite his ever-loving corniness, cruising into the turn of the century. —Charity
10. “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” (1997)
“Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the third single from Smith’s debut album Big Willie Style, is emblematic of the actor-rapper’s career. The song is beloved by many; a Grammy winner for Best Rap Solo Performance; a tune that spent three weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot 100; and yet also a track that many critics seem to despise. Sometimes you have to go with the popular vote: “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” is a certified classic, a song guaranteed to get even the stiffest attendee at the family cookout shaking their hips. And that’s exactly the kind of gathering this song is made for, really. Despite its title, this isn’t some club banger designed to encourage grinding or anything; it’s simplistic and innocent in a way, best enjoyed among a more intimate group of friends at a kickback or the local haunt.
While “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” wasn’t the origin of the term “Jiggy Era,” a period of hip-hop in the late ’90s often defined by increased commercialization, shiny suits, and flamboyant music videos, Smith certainly co-opted its hallmarks. The song’s video was filmed in a number of hotels on the Las Vegas strip and featured the choreography routine full of puffer jackets and ostentatious set pieces (ancient Egypt, a Polynesian-influenced backdrop.) But that’s what Will Smith did; he made trends sometimes, yes, but when he was late to them, he still made them his own. —Jenkins
9. Enemy of the State (1998)
Will Smith was at the height of his Independence Day–Men in Black powers when he starred as a charming, overcoat-wearing, in-over-his-head labor lawyer in accidental possession of a deadly government secret in 1998’s Enemy of the State. A movie that combines the paranoia of The Net with the propulsion of a good Grisham or Crichton yarn, the Tony Scott–directed political thriller featured not only an incredible roster of lead talent (Regina King? Gene Hackman vs. Jon Voight? Have mercy!) but also a group of incredible late-’90s supporting actors, from Jason Lee to Scott Caan to Jack Black to Jamie Kennedy and Seth Green.
What is most amazing about the film isn’t even its casting, though, but its prescience: Years before 9/11, the movie was already ringing alarm bells about governmental surveillance, the illusion of privacy, and the terrifying potential of zoom-and-enhance. (“The first time I saw a movie where a satellite was able to zoom in on a car license plate, I snickered,” Roger Ebert wrote in his review at the time, before warning that “recently I was able to log onto a Web site (www.terraserver.microsoft.com/) and see the roof of my house—or yours.”) These days, no one would doubt that the feds can read your license plate and interest in some sort of Enemy of the State sequel/reboot/refresh has swirled for some time now. It’s easy to imagine Smith in more of a grizzled, jaded Hackman role this time around: After all, it’s been almost 25 years since then, and we’ve all gone through some shit. —Baker
8. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” theme song (1992)
I can still hear my obnoxious laugh reverberating throughout my living room the first time I heard Will Smith say, “Yo Holmes, smell ya later.” It was louder than the Fresh Prince’s yellow and blue two-tone outfit from the intro. There’s no shortage of goodies littered throughout the iconic Fresh Prince theme song (and video intro): the airbrushed graffiti, an overdramatized life-changing basketball scuffle, Will’s high-pitched grandma voice, some C-level Run DMC wankstas, rearview mirror dice, and that rotating throne.
Every time a new episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air came on the TV, I had to rap along to the intro. It stuck to your brain like silly putty. It was part of the routine. Failure to do so would mean I wasn’t equipped to watch the episode. The dedication was real.
The show and the theme song were tag-team partners. They were like the Road Warriors. The Hart Foundation. The Rockers (before the Barbershop interview). You can’t have one without thinking about the other. Sure, I knew about Will Smith and his endless charisma via his cassettes with DJ Jazzy Jeff, but this show and theme song catapulted him into the next stratosphere of superstardom. —Fujimoto
7. Ali (2001)
Smith’s portrayal of Muhammad Ali started with a challenge.
When the two met in the preproduction stage of the film, the champ hoped Smith, one of the biggest stars in the world, would play him on screen. Smith, scared he’d screw up the role, immediately declined out of fear. Calling Smith’s bluff, Ali offered a diss.
“You was almost pretty enough to play me.”
Smith later accepted the role in 2000 and put on a case study of sheer will. For a year, he studied Ali, his boxing style, and his Islamic heritage. When filming commenced, he fought with former heavyweight fighters, took actual punches, and talked the best shit on camera since Ali himself. More importantly, he became Ali for a generation two decades removed from the fighter’s rise. And with all-time performances from Jamie Foxx, Nona Gaye, and Jon Voight rounding out the film, Ali is a signature piece in Black cinema.
For Smith, it was a graduation of sorts. Sure, he was a bankable star with blockbusters like Men in Black and Independence Day under his belt. But Ali gave him the affirmation that he belonged in the same breath as Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte.
Amazing what a challenge can do. —Murdock
6. Men in Black (1997)
In 1997, few stars shined brighter than Will Smith. One year after Fresh Prince’s six-season run came to an end and Independence Day became the second-highest grossing film ever at the time, Smith delivered again with the summer blockbuster Men in Black. His transition to becoming a full-fledged movie star was complete. As Agent J, Men in Black wasn’t exactly unfamiliar territory for Smith; he had just starred in a buddy-cop action comedy in 1995’s Bad Boys and was already busy punching aliens in Independence Day. And yet Men in Black was the perfect blend of both films. It was another showcase of Smith’s magnetic charisma and comedic timing in an absurdly fun film that featured Vincent D’Onofrio terrorizing the streets of New York City as a massive cockroach alien disguised as a human and Tommy Lee Jones violently shaking an alien pug named Frank.
Even after all these years and the many MIB sequels that followed (some of which many of us would prefer to forget), my favorite scenes of the entire franchise are back when it all started, with Smith undergoing a “series of simple tests” at MIB headquarters while wearing a bright red jacket, jeans, and Timbs as he’s surrounded by hyper-serious military men in full ceremonial attire. Agent J would go on to face all sorts of aliens and travel through time after donning the last suit he’d ever wear, but Smith needed little more than a pencil or a cutout of a suspicious little girl carrying a quantum physics textbook to strike comedy gold. —Chin
5. Bad Boys II (2003)
This movie is so iconic, I shouldn’t even have to type a single word. There are too many legendary moments to explain in this short blurb, but this is far and away my favorite:
The Bad Boys movies aren’t exactly built on page-turning plots, so the story is fairly ignorable. (“Bad guy is bad and Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, and Gabrielle Union are out to stop him” is good enough for me.) This movie is built on the chemistry between Smith and Lawrence, outlandish scenes and situations that will make you laugh so hard you snort, and Miami as the perfect playground. Ask anyone about Bad Boys II and someone will have a favorite scene. The opener when Lawrence gets shot in the ass while the two cops bust a KKK gathering; the video store “partners” scene; the boyfriend coming to pick up Lawrence’s daughter. Mix that with some legit gunplay and an epic ending that rivals Fast Five in the “let me drive through a bunch of shit and make it look really cool” sweepstakes. Bad Boys II could’ve been a disappointment after a fun first movie, but it just raised the bar eight years after the original. —Becoats
4. “Summertime” (1991)
The circumstances surrounding Jazzy Jeff and Will’s fourth album, Homebase, were something the duo were unaccustomed to. By 1991, they were on a hit television show, meaning they had less time—but also less pressure—to produce hits. “If the album bombed, we would be fine—our rents (and our tax liabilities) were getting paid with Bel-Air money,” Will wrote in his 2021 memoir. Plus, the album felt like an escape from the rigors of Hollywood—more an opportunity for two friends to connect than anything else. They had a newfound freedom with their music, which meant they could get back to having fun. Nowhere was that more apparent than on “Summertime,” the best song of Will Smith’s career and still the gold standard for warm-weather anthems three decades later.
There’s a reason for the persistent (and debunked) rumor that Rakim wrote “Summertime” for Will: The Fresh Prince has never sounded so effortlessly cool, so in command of his craft. Over a flip of Kool & the Gang’s “Summer Madness,” Will channels the God MC’s cadence and baritone, telling tales of cookouts and cruisin’ through the neighborhood in a freshly waxed car. It’s a decidedly low stakes affair, but Will turns it into something universal (even if we have some Philly-specific notes). “Summertime” won the duo their second Grammy and landed atop the Billboard R&B chart. More importantly, however, it endures today as a testament to the freewheeling spirit that came with the summers of yore—a time when there was no pressure and nothing better to do than kick it with your friends. Will and Jazz understood that better than anyone while working on the album that birthed “Summertime”: “It was just me and Jeff being me and Jeff, getting back to what made us great,” Will wrote. “We were getting back to our home base.” —Sayles
3. Bad Boys (1995)
Come on now.
Where did this all begin, really? Who taught you not to question the temporal logic of a Michael Bay chase scene? To empty an entire clip of bullets into your problems? That airplane fuel and gunpowder have similarly explosive properties? The rest of the lyrics to that Cops theme that Bad Boys successfully reclaimed?
I think we can comfortably say that Will Smith, as a constant presence throughout many of our formative years, appears to each of us in a very distinct way at the mention of his name. For me it flickers between two images: in a flooded silk suit with giant shoulder pads talking Theresa Burnett out of killing Marcus while a sex worker is in the other room, and posing on top of a car with his standard-issue police pistol, with his chest all out; the shirt there is also made of silk. Mike Lowrey is Will Smith; Will Smith is Mike Lowery. —Peters
2. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990–1996)
This bougie Black sitcom wasn’t quite like the others. It was the story of a West Philly misfit boarding with his wealthy Uncle Phil and Aunt Viv in a suburban enclave within Los Angeles. The high-status parents Phil and Vivian Banks were there to impose order and wisdom in a household of goofy ingrates. But fundamentally, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a star vehicle for Will Smith, and so the ingrates—Will, Carlton, Ashley, Hilary, and the odd interloper Jazz—had the dramatic advantage. This rebalancing of the sitcom household dynamic was the sign of a larger whimsical potential in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. This show would go on to stage Carlton and Tom Jones singing “It’s Not Unusual” as a duet in an episode, “The Alma Matter,” interpolating “A Christmas Carol.”
Yes, Family Matters stretched its humble premise to similar absurdities over the years via Steve Urkel, but even then Family Matters was the more grounded show; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was a broad soundstage comedy with spectacular chemistry, runaway jokes, and a surprising capacity for earnest drama. Time and again, Will Smith and his castmates went there. It was rarely that deep but it was always energetic and effective. In recent years I’ve encountered so many critiques, with a mind toward race and class, pitting the kids who grew up watching The Fresh Prince versus the kids who grew up watching Martin (only to witness the stars of both shows go on to costar in Bad Boys). I grew up watching both. Certainly The Fresh Prince was the softer show, so proudly suburban, produced to cast Will Smith in the brightest light. And now it never goes out. —Charity
1. Independence Day (1996)
In Will Smith’s 2021 memoir, Will, he recounts the advice Arnold Schwarzenegger gave him in May 1996 about being a major movie star: “You are not a movie star if your movies are only successful in America. You are not a movie star until every person in every country on earth knows who you are. You have to travel the globe, shake every hand, kiss every baby. Think of yourself as a politician running for Biggest Movie Star in the World.”
By the spring of ’96, Smith had already announced his candidacy, and he was months away from launching his most convincing campaign event yet: Independence Day. What better way to win over the world than to save it on screen?
Independence Day adheres to Smith’s famous formula for box-office success: special effects, creatures, and a love story. In the long run, Smith’s predilection for sci-fi yielded as many misses as smashes, but the first film his recipe produced was worth all of the subsequent stinkers. Independence Day is the culmination of decades of science-fiction filmmaking, and maybe the most rewatchable movie ever. One can make the case that Smith isn’t its MVP, or the deliverer of its most memorable line; iconic as “Welcome to Earth” is, it can’t top “Hello, boys! I’m baaack!” or Bill Pullman’s incomparable pep talk. But with apologies to Ethan Hawke, Independence Day wouldn’t have been what it was without Smith—and Smith might not have become what he was about to be without Independence Day. I’m not saying Independence Day: Resurgence sucked solely because Captain Steven Hiller didn’t report for duty, but his absence illustrated Smith’s sky-high value over replacement performer. —Lindbergh