LOS ANGELES—Will Smith wants to give credit to a group that hasn't received much praise when it comes to the election of Barack Obama. He says that we shouldn't forget about the contribution made by MTV.
“I truly believe a large part of why he was elected has to do with MTV,” he says in an L.A. hotel room. “What they did was lay a conduit between the inner city and the suburbs and between American kids and the world. You can't tell a 15-year-old kid a lie about black people because they know it's not true. But you could feed their parents and grandparents any kind of misinformation that you wanted to because they didn't have the connectivity. What MTV was able to do was to connect kids of all races and creeds and colours. That relieved the fear that comes when you just don't know.”
Smith is here to promote his latest film, Seven Pounds, in which he plays Ben Thomas, a mysterious man who appears to have taken on the role of a Good Samaritan. He has suffered a great loss at some point in his life and he is trying to replace it by giving something back to several strangers. He uses his credentials as an Internal Revenue Service investigator to search out those whom he feels deserve a break. However, as he moves through his list of beneficiaries, he finds himself falling in love with one of them, a young woman with heart disease (Rosario Dawson) who will die if she doesn't get a transplant. The film opens on Friday (December 19) in Vancouver.
Smith says that the movie “changed his life” and admits that he was concerned about taking it on when he first read it. He says he told his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, that he didn't think he would do a good job of it because he might end up avoiding the self-exploration that he saw as being part of the role. He says she convinced him that he could find the character inside of himself.
“She said, ”˜You know, in some ways you are Ben. The reason you are so nice and fight so hard to be up-tone is that you are at war with that guy inside of you.' I was like, ”˜Damn deep, lady,' and that is when I realized that so many of the projects I was choosing had to be okay or it hurt me emotionally. But now that my sensibilities are becoming slightly less delicate, I am able to venture out into the world of emotional and artistic ambiguity, and that strikes me as more authentic. It still terrifies me. As a child growing up, I needed to know, and my grandmother made sure I knew, that God was going to make everything okay. So to play a character like Ben, who thinks that God made a mistake and it is his [Ben's] responsibility to fix it, was difficult because he has to carry that emotional weight. That was a terrifying space for me emotionally and artistically.”
Smith says that he is excited about the Obama era and he says that for the first time in his career, he feels comfortable about pursuing any role he wants. He says that in the past he would approach a role knowing that there might be controversy over a black man taking the part. Surprisingly, the resistance to his taking on roles written for white actors came more from his own community than it did from producers.
“When Obama was elected, it was like it validated something inside me, and now I can say, ”˜Let's create our own movies.' I can say, ”˜Yes, it was written for a white character, but you can take the responsibility and show how it can be something else.' My experience has been that people would say, ”˜You're an Uncle Tom. The white man got you brainwashed.' Now I feel so free. I have been unleashed to say things and do things the way I felt for such a long time. I never liked the word racism because there are so many connotations that go with it, but if you put 10 black artists in a room and we come up with something, it will be about black people. That is what we know and that is what we are going to come up with. The fact is a lot of creative people are of a certain background. We have to show how a movie will work for a vast audience. It is our responsibility to show how Bad Boys or [the Smith-produced] The Secret Life of Bees will work, and we can produce and create our stories. We have a black president now, so we have no excuses.”