Bright Lights Film Journal

Unintentional Camp and the Image of Will Smith: Camp — and coded queerness — finds a surprisingly happy home in the films of Will Smith

Camp — and coded queerness — finds a surprisingly happy home in the films of Will Smith

In 15 years, Will Smith accomplished more than most people dream of. He deferred an engineering scholarship to MIT to become a rapper. His successful music videos garnered him a starring television role. By 1990 he was a millionaire; by 2000 he was earning $20 million per movie. His roles have always been magnanimous and ultraheroic. He plays cops in half his movies and has played an alien-killing cop three times. In 2001, Smith portrayed the most important hero of all — Muhammad Ali, his personal hero.1 Indeed, Smith is wholly responsible for this success, and maintains his $20 million hero image by himself.

Susan Sontag’s seminal essay “Notes on ‘Camp'”2 defined this elusive concept. “Camp sensibility is one that is alive to a double sense in which some things can be taken.” Essentially, camp is an alternate reading of an existing text. Camp reassesses serious texts with humorous and stylistic qualities. Camp “character”3 is “understood as a state of continual incandescence — a person being one, very intense thing.” Will Smith’s self-formed image was one of both naïveté and charisma. His plucky protagonists usually goggle with curiosity and run from trouble, only to later punch the bad guy in the face with stunning ferocity. Although the reoccurrence of this role might be considered typecasting, the fact that Smith enjoys these characterizations is very telling. Aside from constantly portraying “himself,” his beautified body, desexualization, and on-screen relationships with men also play into his unrecognized camp. It is important to note that Smith takes his roles very seriously. Considering this, rereadings of Smith are “unintentional” camp — that is, read only by the viewers, never by Smith himself.

When researching Will Smith, I found a surprising synchronicity among women I spoke with. While I maintained the validity of my academic topic, they qualified the subject by his appearance. Indeed, People magazine placed him on their list of the “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” in 1998.4 Will Smith is handsome and confident. His dress borders on the flamboyant yet never digresses to gaudiness. For instance, in numerous promotions for Wild Wild West, he brazenly wore ensembles that synthesized “wild west” garb with a hip-hop flair. His trademark ear-to-ear grin appears at every photo-op, imbuing his image with a boyish giddiness that reappears in his on-screen roles. The only contradiction to his boyishness is his ever-present facial hair. (Even so, his mustache and beard are always kept thin.) As far as his sexuality is concerned, Smith’s relationship with his second wife, Jada Pinkett, has always included public displays of affection and joint appearances. Even his recent albums have showed a marked change from the “crusin’-for-girls” attitude of his early years to the “off-limits” vibe he gives off in recent songs.5 His film roles match his boyishness and sensitivity with all-American heroics. Between punching aliens, Smith always gets an opportunity to take off his shirt. In fact, Ali gave him the chance to show off the 40 pounds of muscle he gained for the part by being shirtless for half the film.

When read as camp, Smith’s “masculinity” and “heterosexuality” are questioned, but neither is explicitly negated. Although extreme “he-man-ness” is campy in its own right, according to Sontag, “Camp taste draws on a mostly unacknowledged truth of taste: the most refined form of sexual attractiveness… consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”6 Indeed, many of the things that make Smith “masculine” are actually “feminine” attributes. Female associates considered Smith as a sex object. People magazine considered him to be “beautiful.” His showy ensembles — again, notably his cowboy outfits — are more reminiscent of female stars, who are forever being asked “who” they are wearing. His “boyishness” is in direct contrast to stars such as Robert Redford and Harrison Ford who possess “rugged good looks.” Smith’s innocence contradicts the “masculine” notion of always being in control. Besides the fact that most stars are rarely seen with facial hair (outside preparation for roles and “grubby” phases between roles), his pencil-thin mustache resembles “homosexual” styles. He is more open about his affections toward Jada, the opposite of peer-couples (the former) Tom/Nicole and Brad/Jennifer, who keep themselves more private. Lastly, the extreme glorification of Smith’s “body” relates back to his omni-conscious self-image. If he controls his “image,” which is part of a larger “Being-as-Playing-a-Role,”7 then he becomes the scopophilic viewer of his own “sexuality.”

What sets Smith apart from most contemporary stars is his constant self-promotion. The TV program The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air replicated his music video persona and enhanced his recording career. The films Men in Black (“MiB”) and Wild Wild West featured hit songs that reawakened Smith’s musical success. His single “Just the Two of Us”8 was repackaged as a children’s book with the same title.9 He plans to follow his film The Mark (in pre-production since 1999) with a cartoon created by his production company.10 The width of Smith’s marketability often earns him criticism. His singles win Grammies but are sampled from and written by other artists. “Wild Wild West,” for instance, was the synthesis of two songs (one 20 years old, the other 10) with lyrics “inspired” by the film. Again, the definition of camp explains: “Camp… makes no distinction between the unique object and the mass-produced object. Camp taste transcends the nausea of the replica.”11 Smith’s affinity for pastiche becomes a saving grace. Sampling other artists is a youthful gesture of homage — literally quoting songs from his youth — another reference to his naïveté. Since Smith commands $20 million per film, his cultural capital is high enough to be easily transformed into monetary capital. In other words, Smith’s fans will gladly pay for each iteration of his “image” — from movie tickets to CDs.

Although Smith’s campiness can be appreciated multi-textually, the camp of his acting is best explored in terms of his film roles. In Six Degrees of Separation, his character is homosexual, but in every other film he plays a heterosexual. However, there are numerous instances in his filmography where homosexual camp is reinforced. The closest to his extra-textual image of masculinity is the lack of female counterparts. In Fresh Prince, he was without so much as a steady girlfriend until the last seasons, when ratings started to falter. In Made in America, Bad Boys, and Men in Black he is relegated to platonic relationships with women. When he does have a visible relationship, he is often separated from his romantic partner for the entire film as in Independence Day (“ID4”) and Enemy of the State. In Bad Boys, MiB, Enemy, West, and Ali, women constantly provide unwelcome distractions for him. In Men in Black II (“MIIB”), Smith’s love interest is unavailable and they only share a brief kiss. In The Legend of Bagger Vance, Smith’s character shares almost no screen-time with women at all. There are references to his heterosexuality — promiscuity in Boys, a stripper girlfriend in ID4, a healthy love life in Enemy, and sex in a water tower in West. However, in every instance, the scene is interrupted and we never see much physical proof.

Smith’s characters’ alienation from women is further enhanced by his male partnerships. He is paired with another man, usually with voiced (but jokingly written-off) homosexual connotations. Fresh Prince paired him with an effeminate cousin (Alfonso Ribeiro) who he saved from silly situations, sometimes cumulating in a drag or play-acting-homosexual scene.12Bad Boys had Smith trading (sexual) identities with his cop partner (Martin Lawrence), leading to a misconception that they were actually lovers. In ID4, Smith’s partner (Harry Connick, Jr.) play-acts a marriage proposal to him in a locker room. When his partner is shot down, the enraged Smith pummels a fearsome alien with a single fist-throw. Smith spends the remainder of the film chomping on cigars with an effeminate scientist (Jeff Goldblum). MiB sets Smith up as the rookie cop, paired with the crusty old veteran (Tommy Lee Jones). The older cop emasculates Smith, forbidding him to drive their souped-up muscle car and giving him a miniscule firearm. This same relationship is echoed in Enemy, where Smith and the veteran (Gene Hackman) share a relationship with a young woman. Furthermore, Smith and his partner are chased by bad-guy male couples that obsess about material possessions (homosexual coding). West features a near synthesis of all Smith’s former partners: an effeminate scientist (Kevin Kline) who constantly throws catty comments, shares a love interest with Smith, and never fails to get in compromising situations — from dressing in drag to getting Smith’s head magnetized to his belt buckle. Two films present contradictions but continue the general theme. In Vance, Smith is the (spiritual) inspiration for a golfer (Matt Damon) who has become impotent at both the game and in his love life. In America, Smith serves as the best friend to the protagonist (Nia Long). Even though he expresses his heterosexuality, he is denied a relationship with the protagonist and might as well be homosexual.13

Another level to Smith’s homosexuality comes in a more classical form. The ancient Greeks had a custom where adolescent boys would partner with older men.14 This was typically seen in both military and academic circles and often served as a form of tutelage outside the sexual relationship. The obvious master/student relationship in Smith’s films combines seamlessly with this homosexual connotation. ID4, MiB, Enemy, and West all portray Smith as the young student who must learn from his more experienced partner. In ID4, he begins as a hotshot jetfighter, and when his first “partner” dies, he takes up with an older scientist. When he is with this new partner – the latter half of the film – he is surprisingly inactive and very attentive to everything the scientist does. Enemy and West use this relationship to different ends, with the veteran learning as much from Smith as Smith does from him. Vance reverses the relationship, making Smith the teacher of a younger man. As with the other “teachers,” he delivers insults (especially toward the golfer’s manhood) while teaching his “student.”

The ultimate example of the homosexuality in Smith’s on-screen characters is his role in Six Degrees. He plays a street hustler who is part of a gay man’s (Anthony Michael Hall) scheme to “out” himself. Smith uses self-inflicted stab wounds and a stolen address book to gain entrance to the homes of high-society New York families. When his con is discovered — in part due to his obsession with male prostitutes — Smith once again becomes homeless. Smith plays a variation of his con on a down-and-out actor, to whom he eventually teaches the elocution and snob-culture lessons he himself learned. However, he tops it off by advising, “What you should do is get yourself a patron!” In this case, the “patron” refers to the homosexual “teacher” mentioned earlier. Smith actually wants to be this patron, and he ends up seducing the man during a carriage ride.

Despite the complexity of the homosexual relations in Six Degrees, it still belongs outside the body of Smith’s “campy” work. Sontag states, “Camp which knows itself to be Camp… is usually less satisfying.” Smith is not a homosexual and he resisted his two screen kisses so much in Six Degrees that both were shot in such as way as to hide the kiss itself.15 Both kisses lack real passion and likewise have no possibility for camp, intentional or otherwise. The protagonists of the film (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) deal in art and speak almost entirely about the arts (when they are not talking about Smith’s character). Although camp is rooted in art — specifically Art Nouveau — the characters in the film lack real enthusiasm about art itself. They may fawn over their double-sided Kandinsky, but they lack passion for art itself the same way Smith lacks passion for his homosexual kiss. The husband recalls a dreamlike moment where he learns the essence of art from an elementary school teacher. Even so, by the end of the film he’s forgotten this telling lesson and has slipped into banality.

Critic Jennifer Gillan places Six Degrees back in the corpus of Smith’s other films because she claims it buys into the typical “buddy formula” films, especially the white-black buddy subgenre.16 The biggest flaw with her analysis is that while Smith plays “himself” in his films (“Being-as-Playing-a-Role”), in Six Degrees he does not. Accordingly, the film also lacks camp sensibility and has only rudimentary comic relief. The more garish “comic” scenes include one where a naked hustler chases the protagonists around their living room, wielding his penis as a knife. Another involves the three families — all duped by Smith — confronting their children, who Smith claimed to know. The selfish children become incensed and humiliate and degrade their parents verbally. Six Degrees is very sober, and although the highest form of camp (unintentional camp) comes from the serious, the film currently17 lacks enough style to be reread. In essence, Smith plays too many roles that are too divergent from the “self” he is known to play.

Will Smith’s acting career is a little over 10 years old. In that time he has spanned the entire realm of entertainment, and made himself a household name. Daily Variety’s Michael Fleming writes: “[Smith] tends to make numerous boasts and pronouncements that somehow never leave you thinking, Wow, this guy’s a jerk. Maybe that’s because… he carefully thinks about and believes what he says, and he can usually back up his bragging.”18

Smith never forgot his comic roots and he does not take himself too seriously. America still takes him seriously, however, and his most recent films — goofy Men in Black II and Oscar-bait Ali — received lukewarm receptions. But Smith’s constant self-promotion, his acting flair, and the constant playing of “himself” will hopefully pave the way for rereadings of his work. Possibly in the next decade, Smith’s refusal to grow up will invite more camp readings. Camp provides the key to truly appreciating America’s top hero of the 1990s.

  1. Fleming, Michael. “Playboy Interview: Will Smith.” Playboy. December 2001. []
  2. Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp’.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador USA, 1966. []
  3. Sontag claims, “Camp sees everything in quotation marks.” []
  4. “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World, 1998: Will Smith.” People. 11 May 1998. []
  5. 1988’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper featured “crusin'” songs such as “Parents (Just Don’t Understand)” and “Let’s Get Busy Baby.” 1997’s Big Willie Style still focused on the party scene, but was notably self-reflexive, and never wasted an opportunity to tout his fame. He went as far as to mention Jada by name and even dedicated a song to his son. []
  6. Sontag. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Smith, Will and Ralph MacDonald. “Just the Two of Us.” Big Willie Style. Sony/Columbia, 1997. []
  9. Smith, Will and Kadir Nelson, et al. Just the Two of Us. School & Library Binding, 1998. []
  10. “Overbook turns on TV/Division pushing to get projects aired.” Variety, 11 December 2000. []
  11. Sontag. []
  12. It is important to note that these scenarios are typical of any sitcom. Nevertheless, the cousin was always squealing, mincing, and usually dressed in light pinks and yellows, television codes for homosexuality. Inevitably, the two would end up embracing, and professing their affection for one another. []
  13. When the protagonist ends up dating another man, Smith’s response is to play-act for the audience. He plays both a sassy young woman and the crude man who tries to pick her up. “She” ends up denying the “man” and sashays down the street by “herself” — another instance of homosexual coding. []
  14. Although the terms “catamite” and “pederast” are apropos, their connotations are too crude for this example. []
  15. Because of conflicting reports and the way the scene were filmed, it is unclear if the kisses that appear on screen involve Smith or his body double who would actually perform the kiss. []
  16. Gillan, Jennifer. “‘No One Knows You’re Black!’: Six Degrees of Separation and the Buddy Formula.” Cinema Journal. 40, No. 3: Spring 2001. []
  17. Sontag explains: “The canon of Camp can change… Time may enhance what seems… lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it.” []
  18. Fleming. []