“Beneath its self-presentation as a satiric comedy of manners lie cogent interrogations of notions about race and class, the history of blacks in America, the limits of assimilation, the representations of black gay men, the nature of African American and Hollywood homophobia, and the fluidity of racial identity. Smith performs, resists, and usurps this character in order to effect certain cultural interventions and to further the cause of his public star identity.”
Will Smith now occupies a position in Hollywood that is unrivaled by any other black performer. His films over the last eighteen years have grossed more than $5.3 billion, more than any other actor, with the exception of Johnny Depp (Smith 31). He commands a salary in excess of $20 million per film, which places him in the highest stratum of bankable actors. Consistently over the last decade he has been the highest ranking black star on annual lists of power figures in Hollywood.1 His success is in certain ways unprecedented. Even more than this, the meaning of his star status has historical and cultural implications that have not been fully examined. Smith’s ability to reach such varied audiences, both domestic and global, is an indicator of evolving attitudes about race. The types of roles he has accepted and in which audiences are willing to accept him (savior of mankind, the last man on earth) have done interesting cultural work in terms of redefining concepts of black identity in general and of black masculinity specifically.
Based on a series of actual incidents reported in The New York Times in 1983, the story of the film and the play details the encounter of a New York power couple with a young black man who cons and charms his way into their lives for an evening by impersonating the fictional son of Sidney Poitier.3 Flan and Ouisa Kittredge (Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing) are a private art dealer and his wife who are entertaining a possible investor in a crucial sale. They are burst in upon by the doorman and a young black man (Will Smith) who is bleeding from a knife wound to his side. It turns out that the intruder is a Harvard classmate of their children. They administer first aid, and he begins to talk. He persuades them to stay in, and he will prepare a meal. This he does and in the process dazzles them with his conversation. He discourses on The Catcher in the Rye and the death of the imagination. On top of this, it turns out that his name is “Paul,” and he is the son of Sidney Poitier. It is a magical evening, and the deal is sealed. Subsequently, they discover that Paul Poitier is not who he claims to be and that several of their friends have had similar experiences with him. The path of their investigation into the real identity of this strange young man leads them to a friend of their children named Trent (Anthony Michael Hall), a student at M.I.T. He admits to befriending this Paul and sharing his knowledge of their lives with him. This seems to be the answer, but it doesn’t begin to explain what has happened to them and how their lives have been profoundly affected.
“Mrs. Louisa Kittredge, I Am black”
The film adaptation of John Guare’s Six Degrees of Separation, particularly in the construction and significance of the character Paul Poitier and as performed by Will Smith, constitutes an important meditation on race in America. Beneath its self-presentation as a satiric comedy of manners lie cogent interrogations of notions about race and class, the history of blacks in America, the limits of assimilation, the representations of black gay men, the nature of African American and Hollywood homophobia, and the fluidity of racial identity. Smith performs, resists, and usurps this character in order to effect certain cultural interventions and to further the cause of his public star identity. His performance, in fact, is a part of a larger pattern within the film in which Paul Poitier is marginalized, patronized, and distorted.
One critic, Scott Poulson-Bryant, has observed that Six Degrees of Separation is the history of America in two hours (96), and he is right. More specifically, it is an allegory of the history of blacks in America. Certain scenes involving Paul and his interactions and confrontations with the white characters in the film register a number of historical, social, and racial points. It is ironic that Paul, who is ambivalent about a racial identity, should actually carry so much black signification. Three scenes are essential to this reading.
After Trent picks up Paul and brings him back to his apartment near M.I.T., there ensues a charged exchange. Paul picks up Trent’s address book and is curious about the people in it. His trickster’s master plan is not yet fully formulated. Trent, on the other hand, has another agenda: seduction. They come to an agreement. For each piece of information Trent gives Paul, Paul will remove an article of clothing. This bartering of clothes reinscribes the plot of the children’s story of Little Black Sambo in which an Indian boy, who is threatened by four voracious tigers, barters his clothes in exchange for his life. Paul exchanges his clothes for the possibility of entrée to a better life. This exchange also constitutes a reenactment of the economic transaction of slavery. A privileged white male bids for the possession of the body of a black man. One crucial difference, of course, is that the black man here is actually an agent in the negotiation and stands to gain, in this case the knowledge that will allow him the social mobility he desires. Paul enjoys a certain empowerment in this moment: he acquires the intellectual capital by which to take control of his fate, and he also wields an erotic control over Trent. However, this kind of power can only be virtual. Regardless of the amount of leverage Paul attains, he will always function in a society that has not been constructed for him; he must always play by someone else’s rules. It cannot be forgotten that Trent, though sexually marginalized himself, nonetheless still operates from the advantaged position because of his race, gender, and class. In truth, Trent’s education of Paul, apprising him of the fact that the best gift to give the wealthy is jam in little pots, is essentially an imperialist project. By teaching Paul the details of the lives of his parents and their circle, he is teaching him the codes and values of a supposedly superior civilization. Trent is indoctrinating Paul, annexing or colonizing his mind. Guare makes a joke about this process when he has the South African millionaire joke about the sums of money his government is putting into the education of blacks in his country. He says, “And we’ll know we’ve succeeded when they kill us” (10). Revolution is the furthest thing from Paul’s mind; the end of his education is something perhaps more disturbing: he wants to become his oppressor.4
Here he expresses his wish for a black identity not informed with the wounds of history and racial oppression. His desire is for an autonomous identity which in American society is synonymous with whiteness.
Paul’s will to whiteness, which is also the measure of his own sense of marginalization, is reflected in his choices of lovers. The three young men with whom he chooses to have sexual encounters are all white, and certainly the choice of object cathexis, on some level, is a reflection of identity. In his preference for young white men, he is expressing a desire to become one with them, or even to become them. At least, he seeks validation from them. It must be taken into account that none of these relationships involves love, but instead some variety or degree of exploitation. This idea of import/export strengthens the point about identity. These men may use Paul for sex, money, or information, but he also uses them in his own way. They support him in his quest — to acquire and affirm his simulation of a white identity. Paul’s associations with Rick and the hustler are bound up with his highest sense of self, the peak moments of his self-realization. After the evening’s triumph with Geoffrey and the Kittredges, Paul’s happiness demands that he celebrate his accomplishment with sex. The sex with the hustler thus validates his successfully performed identity. In the second half of the film during the evening with Rick at the Rainbow Room and in the hansom cab, again Paul’s powers of imagination and transformation are given free rein, and it is this young white man from Utah who provides the moment and the audience for Paul’s assumption of his complete and essential self.
Sexuality is only one means of social and identity mobility. Another is through family connections. One can gain entry to privilege by sleeping with it, or one may simply be born into it. Paul makes use of both methods. His project with Flan and Ouisa is to seduce them, not as lovers, but as parents. He sets out to rewrite history and biology so as to become their son, thus to claim their status, wealth, and cultural legacy. It is significant that he devises the fiction of a famous black parent in order to gain access to the desired white parents.5 This goal is efficiently achieved, if only for an evening. The acquisition of the pink shirt (emblematic of class), the possession of the Kittredge’s real son, becomes Paul’s inheritance and investiture.
Yet it is Ouisa, for all her sympathy and solicitousness, who also acknowledges the failure of Paul’s identity project. At the final dinner party during which she comprehends and defends the true meaning of her encounter with Paul, she pronounces the following truth about his dream: “He wanted to be us. Everything we are in the world, this paltry thing — our life — he wanted it. He stabbed himself to get in here. He envied us. We’re not enough to be envied” (116-17). This speech echoes a passage in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time: “White Americans find it as difficult as white people elsewhere to divest themselves of the notion that they are in possession of some intrinsic value that black people need, or want . . . Alas, this value can scarcely be corroborated . . . there is certainly little enough in the white man’s public or private life that one should desire to imitate. White men, at the bottom of their hearts know this” (94-95).
The measure of Ouisa’s transformation is that she can acknowledge this lack of value. In the end, what Paul aspires to is not worth his effort and imagination. His goal of social and racial transcendence, though genuinely and passionately pursued, remains nothing more than a dream.
In his next speech, Paul discusses how his father, Sidney Poitier, has no real identity because he is an actor: “he has no life — he has no memory — only the scripts producers send him in the mail through his agents. That’s his past” (31). Critic David Roman makes the observation that this concept of role-playing as identity is the essence of the black American experience, identity as a fulfillment of those social roles that have been conceptualized and authorized by the white power structure (203). Certainly during the course of the evening described in the film, Paul functions in a number of these prescribed social roles that historically have been designated for black people: he cooks the meal, cleans up afterward, and serves as the entertainment.9 Even more emblematic of “Paul’s” representation of black progress is the fact that he does get to sit at the table, but (ironically, at his own insistence) he doesn’t get to eat.10
Autobiographies of Ex-Coloured Men
Paul’s choice of Sidney Poitier as his father also makes a specific appeal to the liberal consciences of his hosts and their guest. Poitier is a symbol of the civil rights movement, and his film career broke racial barriers not only in Hollywood but in the world. By selecting Poitier, Paul moves his image from associations with slavery in the 19th century to the great social transformations of the 20th century. By accepting the son of this iconic actor who embodies racial good will, the Kittredges can feel good about themselves and their sense of their decency and fairness. In describing his fictional childhood as the child of an international celebrity, Paul moves his image from slavery to the civil rights movement and finally into a postracial position, one that transcends the historical experiences of black people with racism and oppression. When he says that growing up in Switzerland he never felt black, he reassures the couple that he will not make an issue of race or confront them about their racial attitudes. Thus they are free to embrace him.
Paul creates this fictional identity not only for the benefit of his white hosts, but also for himself. He has seduced himself with the idea of being the son of a famous international movie star. (Notice it is the celebrity dimensions, not the black activism aspects, of Poitier’s fame that attracts Paul.) That this Paul inhabits a blackness that is free of history and the experience of racism is meaningful to him and must express a deep wish to be delivered out of his marginality and alterity. This is one of the messages conveyed in Paul’s famous “death of the imagination” speech that is the centerpiece of the evening at the Kittredges. Paul explains to his mesmerized audience: “The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world . . . I believe that the imagination is the passport we create to take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is another phrase for what is most uniquely us” (Guare 34). Paul believes that essentially we are what we imagine ourselves to be. This speech is his justification for his impersonation; this act expresses his truest self. That invented self is one that is free of all contingency, including the burden of race.
His desire is similar to that expressed at moments by Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk when he discovers his racial difference and wishes to live above the veil of race “in a region of blue sky and wandering shadows” (Du Bois 4 ). In both Paul and Du Bois, this desire for a free, raceless identity is really a wish for the fully realized self that would be recognized and accepted if society were truly just.
Like Paul Poitier, Will Smith deftly negotiates race to achieve his particular agenda. Victor Wong offers an analysis of how the terms of Smith’s stardom are constituted: “Smith’s blackness is one that has been made safe for consumption by Hollywood audiences in several ways, including a lessening of conspicuously black characteristics, and by imposing some level of white authority upon him. There should not, incidentally, be any doubt that it is the creation of Will Smith’s image as safe which has directly enabled him to assume his status in the upper echelons of Hollywood’s A-list” (Wong).
Wong isolates one of the primary maneuvers Smith utilizes to mask and contain his blackness: to choose roles originally intended for white actors. The role of Agent J in Men in Black was originally offered to Chris O’Donnell. The role of Robert Dean in Enemy of the State was offered to Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise. The original Agent Jim West in the television series The Wild, Wild West was played by Robert Conrad. Smith is a beneficiary of colorblind casting, and he pulls off these roles with considerable ease. Film audiences accept him in leading heroic roles usually filled by white actors. It is also remarkable how little racial baggage he carries into these roles. Usually colorblind casting of black actors in white roles creates repercussions in the film’s narrative because of unexpected racial implications and interpretations. The casting of Denzel Washington as Gray Grantham opposite Julia Roberts in 1987’s The Pelican Brief, a character conceived as white by the author John Grisham, created problems in terms of the depiction of the central love relationship that develops. The anticipated interracial kiss was not included in the film, which resulted in a noticeable narrative gap for the film’s audiences. The logic of the plot leads to this moment, and its absence raised more questions perhaps than the actual kiss might have. Interestingly, like Smith’s resistance to the male kisses in Six Degrees of Separation, Washington himself refused to do the kiss with Roberts. He claimed he did so out of respect to his black female audience (Ojumu 27).
Smith shares Paul’s desire for racial transcendence. The momentum of his career has been driven by his desire to be the best without considerations of race. His ambition from the start has been to be the biggest star in the world, not the biggest black star. He has said: “My goal is to be the most famous actor on the face of the earth” (Fleming 36). Another example of Smith’s racial attitudes is a statement he made upon the election of Barack Obama as President of the United States. He said: “[W]hen Barack Obama won, it validated a piece of me that I wasn’t allowed to say out loud — that America is not a racist nation . . . I love that all our excuses have been removed. African-American excuses have been removed. There’s no white man trying to keep you down . . . I’m African American, and I was able to climb to a certain point in Hollywood. On that journey, I realized people weren’t trying to stop me . . .” (Smith, Will).
In other words, he believes that black people have not been able to succeed because they have been held back by their own sense of racial impediment. Race can no longer obstruct black progress. Black people should be judged on their achievement, and race should not be a factor. This is how he wants to be assessed. Like Paul, he wants to be taken for his best self, free of contingency and identity politics. Unlike Paul, who realizes this ideal for only a moment, Smith has actually achieved it, and he has been validated in this racial transcendence by Hollywood and audiences around the world. Newsweek in an article entitled “The $4 Billion Man,” quotes a studio executive about Smith: “‘He can do anything.’ His appeal is so universal that it transcends race” (Smith, Sean). Mike Sager in Vibe magazine supports this idea: “Women and children love him; men identify with him; nobody envies or feels insecure around him. A reflection of a model hero in a colorblind, idealized America” (Sager 134). Smith occupies in the real world the postracial space that for Paul exists only in his imagination.
“Don’t Be Kissing No Man”
The postracial identity that Paul Poitier and Will Smith inhabit is complicated by their performances of sexuality. The intersection of blackness and homosexuality is located in a space at the center of Six Degrees of Separation that is resisted on several levels: those of the film’s critics, the film’s writer, and the filmmakers.
Some critics of the film (and play) have found the introduction of Paul’s sexuality to be extraneous, arguing that his blackness is enough to make the point. This addition of homosexuality compromises his believability as a character, as if the nexus of race and sexuality is a mere theatrical stunt, as if black gay men do not exist, or should not. Again, this component is integral to Guare’s conception of this character, and certainly it is consistent with Paul’s historical referent. What remains still is the resistance to Paul’s gay identity, an identity which contributes so much to his complexity and significance.
Though Guare provides his own best defense on this point, he, too, participates in this denial of Paul’s sexuality. It is as though Ouisa’s recoil is inscribed over his own resistance. When Ouisa encounters this same-sex primal scene with Paul and the hustler, notice it is the body of the hustler that serves as the eruption of chaos. Given the logic of the narrative, Ouisa is transformed by her confrontation with Paul. Her leap of imagination is to see him in his human wholeness, and what better way to dramatize this than for her to encounter his nakedness. Curiously, Guare displaces the exposure onto the naked body of the white male, as if to imply that the revelation of blackness is too much to be imagined. To support this charge is the way Guare handles the three men who engage Paul sexually: the nameless hustler, the amorous college boy Trent Conway and Rick, the innocent from Utah. In the second half of the film, Rick is seduced and robbed by Paul in an action that tragically parallels Ouisa’s experience. All three are silenced by their intimacy with Paul. (Rick is quite permanently silenced by suicide.) They disappear from the film, as if the experience were a devastation. Guare seems unable to place white men who have sexually encountered the black male. As David Roman points out in his commentary on John Clum’s analysis of Guare in Acting Gay, “black gay sexuality is constructed as duplicitous, aggressive and uncontainable, rendering white men passive, penetrable, and as Clum suggests, ‘unmanned'” (201-2). The film ultimately contributes, through reticence and avoidance, to the regressive effect of fetishizing, demonizing and mythologizing the black gay male and his perceived dangerous sexuality.
The filmmakers also participate in the resistance to Paul in their failure to visualize his sexuality fully and coherently. As Stephen Farber has noted, the internal evidence of the film seems to indicate that Schepisi shied away from the homosexual nature of the screenplay’s content and did not insist upon certain fidelities to the letter of Guare’s conception because he simply was not sufficiently emotionally invested in that aspect of the story (33). Paul is therefore resisted, and his sexuality is marginalized, even denied, at the directorial level.
This resistance is also compounded at the level of the interpretive artist. During the months following the film’s release, there was a minor controversy after it was reported that Smith, the then untried actor cast as Paul, when on set, refused or claimed inability to perform the role as written. This was surprising behavior as he had actively campaigned for the role, seeing it as an opportunity to prove his legitimacy as an actor. In effect, he would not engage in any of the dramatized homosexual activity required. The intersection of race and sexuality that Paul Poitier constitutes created a crisis of masculinity in Smith, who chose a public performance of heterosexuality over the queer performance required by the role. Much has been written about Smith’s failure to negotiate this aspect of the film, and the repercussions have followed him as it remains an issue that is raised in television interviews and magazine profiles even today. After the release of the film, Smith proclaimed, and still does, his wrong-headedness in dealing with this matter and that now he would have no problem performing the role as written. This stance is disingenuous as now he has nothing to risk with the film released, reviewed and a part of cinematic history, a touchstone film of the ’90s. At the time, however, there was much comment concerning Smith’s homophobic behavior. Following an article on Smith in Premiere, the Letters to the Editor section featured some outraged reactions. The most cogent critique raised the question of what position would Smith, as a black actor, take if a white actress were to refuse to kiss him? (Yarborough 16).
What has not been often remarked upon is the thoroughness and completeness of Smith’s resistance to the necessary representations of Paul’s sexuality. The problem is not that he was unable to kiss the actor Anthony Michael Hall on that particular day of shooting; the problem is that from the beginning he had no intention of doing so. The compromised scene is the one in which Paul extorts information from Trent about the people in his address book in exchange for a discarded article of clothing. At one point, instead of continuing with the game, Paul breaks the rules, approaches Trent and kisses him fully on the mouth. It is neither a romantic nor an erotic kiss, but actually an act of aggression whereby Paul seals his pact with Trent and asserts his power over him. When performed on stage, it is a powerful dramatic moment. Both James McDaniel and Courtney Vance, who portrayed Paul on stage in New York, did not hesitate in this depiction and gave full value to the scene. In the film the illusion of the kiss is created by extreme closeup of the back of Smith’s head, compensatory editing and sound effects. The result is a dramatic moment whose power and point are diminished.
In defense of his position, Smith at the time made the argument that as a black actor whose position is paradigmatic and iconic, he could not afford to risk any damage to his public image because his constituent audience would be unable to make a distinction between him and any role he might inhabit (Story 43). Unlike a white actor, who can play any character without personal ramifications, a black actor, Smith reasons, is more completely identified with any role he might play, and therefore has a responsibility not to do any social or personal damage. The underlying premise here is that to portray a gay character and to do so with artistic commitment is inherently compromising. Furthermore, in support of his decision as to his interpretation of the role, he has cited the advice of fellow actor Denzel Washington: “‘You can act all you want, but don’t do any physical scenes.’ In other words . . . ‘don’t be kissing no man'”(Chambers 76). Whatever the merit of his argument, the result in the film are moments of technical awkwardness, needless ambiguity and a character who seems even more opaque than perhaps necessary. Here is a case of a fledgling actor who overrode the power and artistic visions of both John Guare and Fred Schepisi and was able to get away with it because he had the backing of the producer and a base of power in a celebrity that needs to be interrogated.
Queer Willie Style
Both Paul, within the film, and Smith, in his performance of Paul, react to the assumption of a heterosexist norm. For all his gayness, which is revealed halfway through the film, Paul covers his sexual identity by adhering to the requirements of the white upper class into which he attempts to assimilate. His language, his manners, and his dress conform to the WASP social code, and his performance of class is seamlessly effective. He follows the regimen required for assimilation as Stuart Hall outlines: “Blacks could gain entry to the mainstream — but only at the cost of . . . assimilating white norms of style, looks, and behavior” (Hall 279). When he enters the Kittredge apartment after simulating an attack by muggers in Central Park, he is wearing the prep school/Ivy league uniform of khakis and blue blazer. His conversational gambit is to flatter Flan and Ouisa by reporting that their children do not criticize them at school. In addition to these blandishments, he makes the white couple comfortable with his presence by making them feel that he is not what he so obviously is: a young black man. Such a categorization carries with it certain assumed characteristics, the most relevant here being the cultural sexualization of black masculinity. Historically, black men are associated with particular stereotyped sexual attributes relating to genital size, sexual performance, and a predisposition toward rape. All of these can pose a threat that results in the stigmatization of black men by mainstream society. Kobena Mercer articulates this fear of black manhood: “In the phantasmic space of the white male imaginary, the big black phallus is perceived as a threat not only to hegemonic white masculinity but to Western civilization itself” (Mercer 284). Paul’s markers of class neutralize his sexualized racial identity, and he is read as acceptable, the black equivalent of their privileged and wholesomely heterosexual children.
In other films Smith is paired with women of Latino or of other ethnic backgrounds: Eva Mendes (Hitch, 2005), Alice Braga (I Am Legend, 2007), and Rosario Dawson (Men in Black II and Seven Pounds, 2008). Seven Pounds is the only case of Smith engaging in a sustained sexual scene in his career. When he is opposite white actresses, the relationship is either chaste or adversarial: Linda Fiorentino (Men in Black), Bridget Moynihan (I, Robot, 2004), Charlize Theron (Hancock, 2008). The latter film does feature Smith’s only interracial heterosexual kiss though in the most extreme and vexed and not romantic or sexual circumstances. The record of Smith’s performances of a contained black male sexuality attests to how carefully he has shaped his career in order to avoid the difficulties of racial and sexual politics, and he has been rewarded by a remarkable mainstream success.
Paul’s sexuality is more problematic. At one point Ouisa confesses her attraction to Paul and urges Flan to admit to similar feelings. He replies: “Cut me out of that particular pathology” (117). His use of the word “pathology” to describe same sex attraction registers his need to distance such a possibility from himself. Homosexuality for him is disordered and perverse. (It is interesting that Guare within the logic of the narrative equates homosexuality and blackness with chaos.) Yet he would not need to assert that sense of distance if those feelings were truly alien to him. Paul makes him question his identity as a privileged, white heterosexual male and confront aspects of his identity and sexuality that he cannot accept. Gillan quotes Diana Fuss to explain Flan’s situation: “Flan repositions Paul as the ‘outsider’ who enacts the process by which ‘heterosexuality secures its self-identity and shores up its ontological boundaries by protecting itself from what it sees as the continual predatory encroachments of its contaminated other, homosexuality'” (51).13 Consequently, Flan must denounce Paul and expel him from his home and life.
By resisting and rejecting Paul, Flan is simultaneously acknowledging and denying a formative trope in American literary representation: the homoerotic bond that motivates a thematic strand in American literature and film. The cultural wish for a rapprochement between the races is most often expressed in the American imaginary through the interracial male bond. For instance, writing about the buddy action film genre, Donaldson observes that “feature films function as a keeper of America’s collective conscience — the repository for fears, guilt, and hopes — the interracial buddy film creates a world where that conscience can find a peaceful balance, that is to say where conflicts can find resolutions” (11).
Christopher Looby notes that Fiedler’s argument about the interracial homosexual subtexts of the American literary history contradicts itself because of Fiedler’s uneasiness with the real implications of homosexuality (529). This uneasiness is embodied in Paul, whose blackness and gayness doubly destabilizes patriarchy. His presence makes the film’s other characters and the filmmakers confront the centrality of race in American society and history as well as the homoerotic desire that haunts the American mythos. The intersection of these two forces that Paul represents is a powerful threat as if the nexus is unthinkable. Certainly, it was too much for Will Smith. As with Flan, Smith has no other choice but to reject the reality and implications of Paul’s sexuality. Flan is invested in preserving his life and his identity, while Smith seeks to protect his career. In interviews published around the time of the film’s release, Smith commented on his motivations for refusing to perform the physical manifestations of Paul’s sexuality. He claimed that the film came at a pivotal point in his career as he was making a transition from television to the big screen, and he didn’t know how those scenes would be received by audiences. He ran the risk of alienating his fan base and of losing face within the rap music community and its constructions of manhood that incorporates “the historic tropes of black heterosexual, masculine (hyper)sexuality, insensitivity, detachment and cold-bloodedness” (Gray 178).
This is a masculinity that is also noted for its misogyny and homophobia.14 Yet, despite the assumed homophobia of rap, Smith later revealed that doing the part ironically gained respect for him because within these notions of black masculinity facing and overcoming the most difficult challenges, even playing gay in a film, is a test of manhood. When asked about the reaction of his peers in rap, he has said, “Everyone applauds me for having the heart to take the role. Rap is about macho, being hard. In a weird way, it turned out that it was a macho and hard thing for me to have had the balls to do” (Gordon 54). He gained credibility for doing the film and facing its challenges, even though technically he did not fulfill all the requirements of the role.
Perhaps it was not so much his rap music peers about whom he needed to be concerned as the Hollywood establishment itself. In making the decision to limit his investment in portraying the gay aspects of Paul’s character, it could be argued that he made the right choice for a young actor attempting to establish himself in a film career. Smith in his off-screen persona, despite the usual gay rumors that accrue to any actor who attains celebrity status, is exemplarily heterosexual. This still does not mean that taking on the role in Six Degrees of Separation was not without real risks.15 Although Hollywood is considered to be a site of liberalism, in terms of its film representations of homosexuality and in terms of its treatment of homosexual actors, it is not as progressive as it appears. Certainly the visibility of gay black male representation is minimal.16
Even young straight actors think twice about taking on a gay role for fear of being stigmatized or marginalized. Brendan Fraser was in a position quite similar to Will Smith’s when he took on the role of Clayton Boone in Bill Condon’s 1998 film Gods and Monsters. In the film, Boone becomes the object of desire of the aging, legendary film director (patterned after James Whale of Frankenstein fame) for whom he poses for sketches. The logic of the narrative requires that Boone finally accede to the wishes of the older man and pose for him in the nude. The scene asks for full-frontal shots, but Fraser refused claiming that the nudity would detract from the scene’s emotional impact (Condon). The scene was filmed utilizing alternative staging and camera angles, and the result perhaps is not as fully effective as it might have been. Fraser has gone on to a respectable and high-profile career as has Smith. The wisdom of caution in the face of homophobia is borne out. Smith ascended to stardom to a certain degree because he resisted Paul.
There are also two sides to Will Smith’s relation to Paul’s sexuality. Smith is as double-sided and contradictory as Paul. His capacity for containing opposing messages is key to his broad-based appeal. He functions as a universal signifier. He is an open figure onto whom audiences can project their needs. He can mask the implications of a black identity for white audiences while simultaneously riffing in vernacular for his black viewers. He can play a homosexual character to earn the praise of the film industry at the same time he manages not to invest fully in that character in order to maintain the respect of his rap and neighborhood peers. In an extension of this duality, Smith denies Paul’s sexuality through aspects of his performance, but at the same time he accesses Paul’s queer spirit in his career as it has developed. The criticism that Smith received for Six Degrees of Separation is in some ways refuted by the body of his work. One pronounced irony contained within Smith’s refusal to play gay in this instance is how often he performs queerness in his films. In “Unintentional Camp and the Image of Will Smith,” Seth Nesenholtz argues that Smith’s persona is informed with a camp sensibility as defined by Susan Sontag in her seminal essay “Notes on Camp” and claims that “there are numerous instances in his filmography where homosexual camp is reinforced” (Nesenholtz).
Within a number of his films there are irruptions of camp or queer desire similar to the revelation of Paul’s gayness in Six Degrees. In Made in America, there is a scene in which Smith as the best friend of Whoopi Goldberg’s daughter, in order to make a comic point, ends their conversation by suddenly taking on a stereotyped female persona and walking away with exaggerated swinging hip movements. In Independence Day, there is a scene early in the film script when Smith as pilot Captain Steve Hiller reports to his military base. In the locker room, as he begins to change his clothing, he discusses his disappointment over a rejection letter from NASA. Harry Connick Jr., as his best friend Captain Jimmy Wilder, asks, “What else do they want you to learn?” Steve answers, “How to kiss ass” (Devlin and Emmerich 42). Connick, kneeling behind Smith then says, “Sometimes you just have to pucker up and. . . .” (Devlin and Emmerich 42). As performed in the film, Connick says, “I’m sorry, man. You know what you need to do. You need to like kiss some serious booty to get ahead in this world, man. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. See, I like the one knee approach because it puts the booty like right in front of the lips” (Independence Day). As he says this, still kneeling, he makes a motion forward as if to plant a kiss on Smith’s backside. The scene is played for comedy, but it registers the homoerotic dimensions of their friendship and summons up the same-sex emotional dynamics of Hollywood war films going back to Wings in 1927.
In Wild, Wild West, as government agent Captain James West, Smith engages in a comic rivalry with U.S. Marshall Artemus Gordon played by Kevin Kline. In one scene on a gadget embellished train, the two masters of disguise argue as to whose female impersonation is more convincing, particularly their costuming and their false padded bosoms. Each claims that his artificial breasts are more lifelike. The unsuspecting conductor overhears them and has his suspicions about their relationship confirmed. He exclaims, “I knew it!” (Wilson et alia 49). Even more explicit is a scene later in the film when the two men find themselves stuck to each other by magnetic metal collars. The positions they find themselves in simulate sex acts when Smith’s face is pressed against Kline’s crotch as his collar becomes attached to Kline’s belt buckle.
In Hitch, Smith plays a relationship expert who attempts to teach a hapless client (Kevin James) how to win the unattainable woman of his dreams. Smith offers to instruct him in the art of the goodnight kiss. Smith stands in for the date so that James can practice his technique. The two end up accidently kissing to great comic effect. The payoff of this moment is that Smith is nonplussed by the kiss, and takes it in stride. His own masculinity is so assured that a male kiss cannot faze him. This scene clearly is a reference to the kissing scenes in Six Degrees of Separation. It is as though Smith is doing penance for his lack of nerve earlier in his career. He rewrites the past, and gets the scene right this time.
There is one more significant scene in a Will Smith film in which there is an errant homoerotic subtext. Enemy of the State dramatizes the plight of an everyman attorney who finds himself the target of a government conspiracy. At one point he is aided by an older man played by Gene Hackman, who is a surveillance expert. When they meet in a hotel hallway, where Smith has momentarily escaped, Hackman, who knows that microphones and tracking devices have been planted on Smith’s person, orders him to take off his clothes. This moment has a deep resonance. The situation of an older white man telling a young black man to strip replicates a pivotal moment in the Frederick Douglass’s narrative when the slave-breaker Covey commands Douglass to remove his clothing and follow him into the woods. Presumably Covey intends to whip him, but the situation is open for alternate interpretations. Covey perhaps has a sexual motive in uncovering the young man’s nakedness and securing the seclusion and privacy of the forest. Their intimacy is staged for either a beating or for sex, the two perhaps being synonymous.18
There is a similar scene in Six Degrees of Separation when the wounded Paul is attended by Flan after he has removed his shirt. As Gillan notes, “One can find . . . traces of a sexualized racial anxiety in the moment when Flan cleans and bandages Paul’s bleeding wound . . . . The moment is also interesting because Paul is naked to the waist, posed on the edge of the Jacuzzi like a lounging Greek statue . . . emphasizing the erotic nature of the position in which he and Flan find themselves” (60). The sexual dynamics between Covey and Douglass are reproduced in Flann and Paul as well as the characters Hackman and Smith portray. The reoccurrence of this charged moment indicates once again the presence of a strong homoerotic interracial component in American mythology and its reproduction in Hollywood film.
All of these moments in Will Smith’s films reveal a contradiction at the center of his film persona, and his ability to contain oppositions is central to the construction of his stardom. Despite his resistance to a homosexual character in his first major role in a major Hollywood film, and despite his exemplary heterosexual public identity, his performances enter into queer spaces, and as such he destabilizes stereotypes about black masculinity and does significant work in deconstructing and reconstructing images of young black men in American popular culture.
A Good Will to All
At the end of Paul’s part of the story, he is defeated. He is driven off in police custody, an image of particular irony in that he has arrived at the exact fate his identity has been constructed to contradict. In this ending, his identity is not in any way validated by external reality, which in a just world it would be. Here he is just another statistic, a young black man in trouble with the law.
What is even more poignant about Paul’s case is that he cannot even maintain authority over his own identity, fictional though it may be, but still expressive of his truest and best self. Simply, he is usurped by the actor who enacts him. Paul’s sexual identity may be betrayed by his audiences, his creators and his interpreter; however, his project of race and class transcendence, whatever its inherent worth, which he ultimately fails to realize himself, is finally fulfilled by the actor who embodies him, and on a scale and to a degree that exceeds even his own wildest dreams.
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- In its Hollywood Power List for 2007, Premiere magazine ranked Will Smith at number 9, the highest placement of any actor and the only actor in the top 10. Denzel Washington, the only other black actor on the list, was in 31st place (Karren). For 2008 Forbes magazine ranked Will Smith at number 11 among the most powerful actors in Hollywood. The only other black male actor on the list was Eddie Murphy at number 41 (“The Celebrity 100”). On Entertainment Weekly’s Power List for 2010, Smith is ranked at number 5 while Denzel Washington is ranked at 28 (Smith, “Power List” 31, 45). It is interesting that the only other black male star in recent history who commands or has commanded the attention of the public and the consequent paydays of Will Smith is Eddie Murphy. However, Murphy’s fame and persona trade in conventional constructs of black maleness (tough cop, funny subversive, madcap eccentric). Even the highly respected, Oscar-winning Denzel Washington in his roles is consistently raced within traditional definitions. Smith’s personae, on the other hand, occupy new racial, social, and classed spaces. Even in a film such as Bad Boys, in which Smith plays a cop, it is a cop with a trust fund. Similarly, in Enemy of the People he is cast as an affluent lawyer-everyman in jeopardy, the logic of the plot hinging on the ability of the American public to identify with him, which evidently it has and does. Aside from the interrogation of racial stereotypes, Smith’s film images are engaged in the reconstruction of notions of black masculinity. [↩]
- Smith was voted the top box office star of 2008 by the Quigley Poll, the first black actor to be so honored since Sidney Poitier in 1968 (Serjeant). [↩]
- All textual references throughout this article are to the text of the published version of the play, which the film version follows closely if not verbatim. [↩]
- It might be noted that David Hampton’s motives for his deception of the Fifth Avenue couples is more subversive. He has said, “It serves them correct that they were taken for a ride because they have clustered themselves into this little world and sheltered themselves from the realities of New York City” (Kasindorf 44). [↩]
- It is significant that Paul presents himself in the assumed identity of the son of Sidney Poitier. His fantasy requires the privilege and status that inhere in the reflected glory of a celebrity. Note that it never occurs to Paul to earn fame by his own efforts. Instead, he wants only the association with greatness. He prefers appearance to legitimacy. David Hampton himself explained that he originally chose Sidney Poitier for his scam rather than Harry Belafonte or Sammy Davis Jr. simply to get into Studio 54 (Kasindorf 42). His ruse was an improvisation of convenience. Paul’s ambition, on the other hand, is considerably raised by Guare to the level of self-recreation. [↩]
- The design of this apartment in its symbolism makes a reference to Poe. Interestingly, Tom Wolfe also uses this trope of a red room in his novel The Bonfire of the Vanities which is set in the same New York social milieu. He entitles chapter 15, which involves an AIDS-stricken celebrity writer at a social function, “The Mask of the Red Death.” Also, the decor of the Kittredge apartment in the film may take its chromatic clue from the famous red-on-red decor of fashion designer Oscar de la Renta’s apartment, which served in the early ’80s as a salon representative of a “new professional elite — those who represent current power, current talent and current fame” (Stanfill 25). [↩]
- According to set designer Patricia von Brandenstein, ” ‘There’s a certain section of New York that, if you inhabit it long enough and you’re insular enough, you think you’re the center of the universe. And Fred wanted that feeling” (Calhoun 9). [↩]
- Paul is like the protagonists of passing narratives in African American literature who “take the risk of identifying differently [from their blackness] in order to access the privileges of whiteness, and most of them pay a high price” (Rottenberg 443). [↩]
- Paul harkens back to a specific Hollywood black character type which was established in the 1930s and described by Donald Bogle: the Servant. Bogle writes: “The toms, coons, mulattoes, mammies, and bucks were no longer dressed as old-style jesters. Instead they had become respectable domestics. Hollywood had found a new place for the Negro — in the kitchens . . . and the pantries . . . . In almost any film of the period . . . a black face was bound to appear. And whether that face was seen for two minutes or three and a half hours, it was invariably there to tidy up the house [or] cook a meal . . .” (36). [↩]
- The metaphor of America as a great communal dining table at which her black children are not welcome is the basis of Langston Hughes’s poem “I, Too”: “Tomorrow/ I’ll be at the table/ When company comes,/ Nobody’ll dare/ Say to me/ ‘Eat in the kitchen’/ Then” (8-14). Paul’s experience with the Kittredges recognizes the racial wish to overcome exclusion, to come out of the kitchen, and to take one’s rightful place at the “American table” (Fleming 9). Maria Fleming describes how this poem expresses the hope of “the men and women who, when told by the larger society to ‘stay in their place’ instead chose to pursue another narrative.” Thus it is particularly ironic that Paul sets a limit on this victory by securing a place at the table but, by his own choice, choosing not to partake. [↩]
- For a more positive analysis of Billy Dee Williams’s character that reads his tokenism as a comment on 1980s affirmative action experiences, see Nama. [↩]
- The one exception is Ali (2001), in which Smith is paired with three black actresses who portray his wives. However, he is portraying the historical Muhammad Ali and is not acting through his own star persona. [↩]
- For a full reading of the homoerotic dynamics between Paul and Flann, see Gillan. [↩]
- Tricia Rose writes the following about rap’s hard masculinity: “The hypervalorization of the hard, invincible young black male who has no chinks in his armor, who is always ready for battle, grandly refusing most forms of emotional vulnerability, is an asset in today’s urban zones; but such intense imperviousness (feigned or realized) has grave liabilities as well. We learn a great deal about ourselves in these spaces publicly and privately after injury. In hardcore rap, these forms of bravery are completely expelled, branded ‘soft’ and ‘weak’ and, God forbid, ‘feminine.’ These rigid identity markers partially fuel the homophobia and anxiety-ridden, hypersexism for which rap has developed a reputation” (155). [↩]
- Smith’s stardom is constituted upon a slippage between his public and private personas. His off-screen identity informs his screen performances to a greater degree than most film stars. As Marshall in Celebrity and Power asserts, the film star is “configured through a tension between the possibility and impossibility of knowing the authentic individual” (90). To the degree that Smith lacks this tension and that his public image overlaps his authentic self, the mode of his stardom is closer to that generated by television. Marshall writes: “Whereas the film celebrity plays with aura through the construction of distance, the television celebrity is configured around familiarity” (119). He continues: “The gap between the fictional or mythical and the real life of the celebrity is narrowed” (131). The Will Smith whose private life is defined by his marriage and family life is not that different from his screen personae. For example, the Will Smith who negotiates white Hollywood shares an identity with his screen characters who also exist in white non-racialized spaces. Thus perhaps there is some risk involved for Smith in the roles he chooses to play. Since in his case there is an elision of the private and public, there might be a problem with roles that don’t safely affirm them both. [↩]
- The more memorable representations of black gay men in mainstream American film before the 1990s include Bernard (Reuben Greene) in 1970’s Boys in the Band, Bernstein (Antonio Fargas) in 1976’s Next Stop, Greenwich Village, and Lindy (Antonio Fargas, again) in 1976’s Car Wash (Harper 142-145). Will Smith’s Paul Poitier in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation is an addition to this lineage. This character and performance constitute one of the most visible representations of the black gay male in American popular culture, and this justifies my project. [↩]
- Paul’s seductive charm is attributable to David Hampton, his original. For his obituary The New York Times interviewed Hampton’s last victim, who was duped out of $1,000 and obligated for a $423 restaurant bill. Still, despite the deception and humiliation, the young man concluded that “it was one of the best dates that I ever went on” (Barry A1). [↩]
- For more detailed interpretations of the homoerotic implications of the Douglass/Covey encounter, see McFeeley 44, Wallace 92-94, and Hardin 102. [↩]
- Given Smith’s ranking at the top of the list of bankable stars, his position goes beyond assimilation to predominance. [↩]
- Smith’s status as a racial bridge is analogous to that of Barack Obama. Both are postracial figures who raise questions about the “authenticity” of the blackness they represent and simultaneously have a broad appeal comprised of a multiplicity of constituencies. What Obama miraculously has achieved in the political sphere, Smith has been doing in Hollywood for the last eighteen years. [↩]