Will Smith has already saved the world.
But ultimately that might not be his biggest on-screen accomplishment. Now he’s poised to solve what is arguably Hollywood’s last taboo: interracial couples.
You could say that Smith has also already bridged the gap between black and white audiences. As one of Hollywood’s most bankable actors, Smith has starred in some of the biggest blockbusters that have been marketed and watched on a universal level–no one would call the Men in Black franchise or Independence Day “black” movies. But there’s something deeper at play in Smith’s body of work, and that is the issue of on-screen, interracial romances.
Over the course of his career, Smith’s leading ladies have inched closer to the Caucasian end of the race spectrum. That’s a continuum that begins with Eva Mendes in 2005’s rom-com Hitch and culminates in his newest film, with Margot Robbie in the recently released Focus. In the movie, Smith plays Nicky, the leader of a band of criminals who takes Jess (Robbie) under his wing as his new protégée. A romance quickly sparks that complicates what could be the biggest heist of Nicky’s career.
First let’s get this out of the way: Focus, as a whole, is passable. Smith charms his way through another semi-complicated role and Robbie manages to give some semblance of depth to the “hot, blonde” archetype. But it’s the full-on love affair (sex scenes included) that deserves a closer look, most notably for the fact that race isn’t mentioned once in the movie–Nicky and Jess’s romance is colorblind.
To understand the progressive implications of Focus and Smith’s part in “normalizing” interracial couplings in mainstream movies, we have to go back to 2005 when a very candid Smith spoke out about Hollywood’s delicate dance on racial lines.
“There’s sort of an accepted myth that if you have two black actors, a male and a female, in the lead of a romantic comedy, that people around the world don’t want to see it.”
During a press tour for Hitch, Smith dropped this salient, if depressing, truth to the U.K. newspaper Birmingham Post about casting Eva Mendes, who is Cuban-American, in the lead role for the film. “We spend $50 something million making this movie and the studio would think that was tough on their investment. So the idea of a black actor and a white actress comes up–that’ll work around the world, but it’s a problem in the U.S.”
Hollywood, of course, has a messy history of racial depictions on-screen (even before Gone With the Wind), let alone interracial couples. If it’s not a problem of painful stereotypes, it’s a plot that’s completely contingent upon two lovers overcoming the insurmountable obstacle of being from different “worlds.”
“It’s an economic issue in that a lot of times Hollywood films are created for the highest number of audience members,” says Nadia Ramoutar, digital film professor at The Art Institute of Jacksonville. “There are still people who object to interracial relationships, therefore interracial relationships are still used as a conflict device within the story.”
Ramoutar authored a 2006 study analyzing Hollywood’s treatment of interracial couples in 15 top-grossing box office movies each year from 1967 to 2005. She found that relationships between men and women of different races in these films were likely to be short-lived or end in disaster.
Ramoutar says that, “We’re still getting the message of, ‘If you would just stay with your own people, it would certainly be a lot easier. If you go outside of your race, you should expect problems and isn’t love problem enough without that?’”
Since Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner in 1967, a kind of ground zero for on-screen black and white couples, Hollywood has fumbled with films like Save the Last Dance, The Bodyguard, Monster’s Ball, and Lakeview Terrace. Though some of those films are box office and critical hits, it’s hard to overlook the use of race as an element for melodramatic tension in a relationship–that is, if a relationship forms at all. Before Robbie in Focus, there was Charlize Theron in Hancock. There’s a connection and very long history between Smith and Theron’s characters but in the end, it’s decided the two are better off apart.
Hollywood, it seems, has been willing to flirt with the idea of a colorblind, black and white couple but rarely commits.
“The Hollywood portrayal of interracial relationships is so rare and when it does happen it’s usually in such a minor way or there is some negative consequence,” Ramoutar says. “Film is a form of cultural transmission–what we consider to be beautiful, what we consider to be successful, those are all things that are transmitted through film and we’re transmitting that message to the next generation of people.”
And what’s being passed down from the screen to society can be more damaging than you think.
A 2013 Gallup Poll found 87% of Americans say they’re in favor of black and white marriages. However, words appear to move faster than actions because according to the latest census data, interracial, opposite-sex couples make up one in 10 marriages in the U.S.–a 28% increase since 2000, indeed–however, when you parse out the data, unions between black and white couples are among the lowest (7.9%), and are far behind white and Hispanic couples (37.6%).
If there’s such high approval rates for black and white marriages, why haven’t we seen more of them?
“In the United States there’s significant racial prejudice and that plays out, not surprisingly, in dating preferences,” says Erica Chito Childs, an author and a sociology professor at Hunter College. “One of the reasons I look at dating and marriage preferences is that it’s one area where you can still uncover underlying prejudices and racism. We’ve learned as a society that people are very politically correct in what they say, but when you start asking people about who they’ll date or marry or who they want their children to marry, it comes out.”
Such dire rates of interracial marriages between blacks and whites largely stems from compounded pressures from outside society and inside family. In Childs’s research, white males, particularly of college age, were quick to exclude black women from potential relationships based on the assumption they would have nothing in common.
“If your personal preference excludes an entire group it’s no longer a personal preference–it’s, at the very least, a racial prejudice,” Childs says. “Sometimes people think interracial marriage is so much more common because they see interracial couples but there is a difference. When you’re dating it’s more of an individual choice–people are more open-minded when it comes to dating because you might date different people that you would never marry. But marriage involves families. It’s not that necessarily the relationship wouldn’t work, it’s the outside pressures from both sides in terms of family expectations.”
Television shows, advertisements, and film often reflect the dominant societal views–but it’s a flawed cycle: These industries continue to churn out what they think the public wants, namely whites with whites, and blacks with blacks. Backlash often comes with on-screen interracial coupling (two words: Cheerios commercial) but the end goal for substantive diversity shouldn’t be clouded by a somewhat bigoted present.
“You don’t hear complaints about representations of white people on television partly because you can’t really stereotype a white person on television–white people have all sorts of roles: They’re the happily married couple, they’re the criminals, they’re the cops. There’s a wide range,” Childs says. “It’s not about limiting representations and saying ‘this group should only be portrayed this way’–it’s that there are still so few interracial couples on-screen that the way they’re represented then becomes representative as how interracial relationships are. We need more diversity so that when we see an interracial couple and they have a bad relationship it doesn’t imply that interracial couples are bad.”
However, as Childs continues, “you have to think about not just the fact that someone’s paired opposite but what is the meaning of the relationship? How does the relationship end?”
The heist went wrong.
Somewhere along the way, Nicky’s scam goes sour and now not only his life is in danger, but Jess’s as well. In order to save her, Nicky starts to break his own cardinal rule of always staying in character–“you die with the lie.” By coming clean, or at least attempting to, Nicky proves he really does love Jess and they hobble off into the distance (toward a hospital) together.
An unconventional end to a romance, yes, but they do wind up together.
For whatever flaws it has–an improbable ending that involves a very precisely placed bullet, Jess’ anti-climatic reason for dating Nicky’s target– Focus’s fully realized interracial, colorblind coupling sets a new standard in Hollywood. And audiences are cool with it: Focus dominated its premiere weekend box office, pulling in $19.1 million, good for the top spot.
“We need to start giving the audience a bit more credit,” says Andrew Weaver, telecommunications professor at Indiana University. “What I’ve been finding is that people like a good story and characters that they can identify with and race isn’t an obstacle.”
Weaver has authored a series of studies looking at the factors behind why white people are less likely to watch movies with a predominantly black cast. What he found is how the film is marketed makes all the difference. In his latest experiment, Weaver created an IMDb-like page for a fake movie with a plot discrete from race. He also incorporated a Twitter feed on the same page with fake tweets from people who attended an advanced screening. All the cast photos and Twitter profile pictures were interchangeable in order to gauge different reactions from subjects.
“If you had a white audience talking about the film then the race of the characters didn’t matter–it’s really driven by how the films are marketed,” Weaver concludes. “If it’s a marketing issue then it’s something that can be overcome. There’s a way that even if you have a black cast, then you can draw a white audience if you pitch this movie in the right way.”
So exactly how integral is an actor like Smith to the marketability of a racially divisive movie? Not so much, as Weaver sees it.
“Will Smith is popular for the same reasons that any actor or actress is popular: He’s good-looking, he’s charismatic, he’s a solid actor,” he says. “It’s not about being a crossover star, it’s about being a star and white audiences like black audiences are able to like, identify with, and appreciate actors of all races. But you have to give them a chance.”