A-List: Best Will Smith Roles

By J. Don Birnam

August 11, 2016

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It’s hard to believe that it’s been over 20 years since the Fresh Prince took us to Bel Air with his cool rap and chill demeanor. The ‘90s were a weird time in that sense - irreverent teenagers back then still played hooky from school to take a joy ride or play basketball at the courts. Today they Pokémon Go, I suppose.

So from a cool hipster teenager, Will Smith has graduated to action hero, boxer, tormented soul, and even superhero. Will Smith’s latest, Suicide Squad, has hit theaters to less-than-stellar reviews but more-than-stellar box office. So, we take a look at five of his most iconic performances. As usual, when we look at an actor’s or actress’s roles, we focus on the strength of the role itself, not so much the quality of the movie.

Despite that disclaimer, though, you won’t see Independence Day on the list - I of course love that movie.

5. Concussion (2015)

The movie itself was not very good. It had all the archetypical clichés of the “struggling to be relevant” film. Evil corporate cronies, a misunderstood, reluctant hero, a reductive evil, and personal redemption. Even though the story was important - concussions in the NFL, the delivery was not really that good.

But Will Smith acquitted himself with dignity, providing just the right amount of Nigerian accent to portray Dr. Bennet Omalu while being respectful to the subject matter at hand. While most other players in the film (think Alec Baldwin) seem to be dialing it in, Will seems to genuinely believe in the topic at hand, and is the only one really taking the mission seriously.

The best scene is perhaps the one from the trailer, where he demands that the evil NFL bigwig “tell the truth!” But it’s not because of the content of the message (a thinly veiled rip-off from A Few Good Men), it’s because Smith has by that point successfully navigated from humble, demur doctor to unwitting crusader.

So, while it did not net him another Academy Award nomination (and you know he was counting on it), it was probably close, and rightly so.


4. Men in Black (1997)

Men in Black arguably put Smith on the radar from super to mega-star, particularly given how close in time to Independence Day it was released.

Here, he proved he could anchor with only one co-star a feature length film really for the first time, and combine it with enough elements of comedy, silly-sentimentality, and action to expose some versatility. The role itself may not be an acting clinic worthy of awards, but it gave him a greater chance to shine along a big star, more so than when he had to share all those screen credits while battling meaner and more dangerous aliens.

While the movie itself is also nothing to write home about in terms of critical consensus, it’s still an audience pleaser and a classic at this point. So Will essentially became a crossover star, from the younger audience of a particular demographic to worldwide stardom. If anything, it’s certainly one of his most memorable roles, and the only one to span multiple sequels in which his character wasn’t, uh, killed off.

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