‘People are looking to forgive him’: inside Will Smith’s carefully choreographed comeback

Estimated read time 7 min read

In one of those dumb ironies that can abound in Hollywood, the first Will Smith movie to be greenlit since the slap in March 2022 hinges on an innocent man trying to clear his name. Previous iterations of the odd-couple, cop buddy movie Bad Boys, starring Smith and Martin Lawrence as two foul-mouthed Miami cops quibbling as they tear through traffic, have centred on missing drug busts, money laundering and Klansmen.

In the latest instalment of the franchise, Bad Boys: Ride or Die, released next week, a criminal cabal frames the errant duo, turning them into fugitives from their own police department. Because nothing signals your earnest desire to give public restitution for assaultinga presenter at the Oscars like a burst of automatic-weapon fire, exploding propane tanks and Lawrence doing his “Oh shit” face.

Along with Smith’s recent appearance at Coachella to perform the song Men in Black, as if to neuralise everyone of unwanted memories, the movie represents a muscular attempt on Smith’s part to shore up and secure his base – the solid core of action-comedy fans who are the least likely to be perturbed by his actions at the 94th Academy Awards, which he turned into a slow-motion car crash worthy of Michael Bay.

Smith and Martin Lawrence in Bad Boys: Ride or DieView image in fullscreen

A brief reminder: ascending the stage, Smith walked up to a presenter of the event, Chris Rock, and slapped him across the face for a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

An eerie sense of dissociation cloaked the rest of the evening, as Smith returned to his seat, accepted the best actor Oscar for his role in King Richard, gave a speech about how “love will make you do crazy things” and then danced the night away at the Vanity Fair party, where he was captured on video singing along to his rap hit Getting’ Jiggy Wit’ It.

It was several months before he formally apologised to Rock, via a six-minute video, uploaded to Smith’s YouTube channel and Instagram page, after hearing that Rock was “not ready to talk”. Smith said he had spent the past three months “replaying and understanding the nuances and the complexities of what happened in that moment”.

“He was a little slow to that video, but it felt genuine,” says Kelcey Kintner, a senior vice-president at Red Banyan, which specialises in crisis management for movie stars, sports stars and politicians. Kintner says the speed with which outrage blew up on social media was typical of the post-Weinstein moral universe. In the aftermath of the Oscars, revenue to the Will and Jada Smith Family Foundation plummeted 83%, after contributors including American Airlines and Smith’s own talent agency, CAA, withdrew their support; its closure is reportedly imminent.

Netflix pressed pause on a thriller it had greenlit just a few months before the ceremony, in which Smith will play a crime kingpin who suffers memory loss, and did not proceed until Sony had committed to the fourth Bad Boys film. “Everyone was waiting to see who would blink first,” an executive told Variety. “Netflix definitely wasn’t willing to be the first studio to get back into business with Will.”

It didn’t help Smith’s cause that King Richard ended up earning slightly less – $39m – than Smith’s fee, which, including back-end, came to $40m. Hollywood will forgive just about anything but bad box office. Smith’s slavery movie, Emancipation, shot before the incident and released during the fallout, also turned out to be a box-office dud: a queasy blend of suffering, piety and civil-war-era superheroics in which Smith’s escaped slave doles out righteous violence upon his white tormentors (and crocodiles).

With one furious burst of temper, Smith seemed to join the ranks of what the New York Times recently termed “the disgraced” – artists and creators who have met with public opprobrium, but fallen short of outright cancellation, kept in limbo by small pockets of support and the memory of their commercial viability. The court of public opinion sometimes results in a hung jury.

“If you judge every comeback by the depth of the fall, then Smith had a very long climb back into public good graces,” says Doug Eldridge, the founder of Achilles PR, a crisis-management specialist in Washington DC. “Very few people were willing to speak up for him for a long while. But, without diminishing what he did in any way, the fact that he did it at the Oscars– Hollywood’s Super Bowl, the most public forum imaginable, watched by tens of millions – gave it an oversized sense of importance. Smith is one of the most bankable stars in America today. That doesn’t go away in a hurry.”

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith at the premiere of EmancipationView image in fullscreen

It helped Smith’s case enormously that the confluence of triggers that seemed to set him off at the Oscars – the sense that it was finally “his” evening, after multiple failed nominations, together with the peculiar dynamics of what he has called his “bad marriage for life” with Pinkett Smith and his testy relationship with Rock, going back to the 80s – seems more or less unrepeatable.

“I think every case is different,” says Kintner. With Smith, “it’s just one incident. We’re all human. We all make mistakes, so people can understand making mistakes, but they do want you to own the mistake and apologise and then they’ll forgive.”

Quick to follow the thermals of public opinion, the studios will soon forgive anyone with even a semblance of commercial life still in them. While it seems unlikely that Smith will play Barack Obama any time soon, as he has long hoped to do, Bad Boys: Ride or Die looks likely to re-establish the star’s box-office bona fides. It will be followed by that Netflix thriller, Fast and Loose, and Sugar Bandits, an adaptation of Chuck Hogan’s novel Devils in Exile, in which Smith will play an Iraq war veteran who teams up with other vets to take down Boston’s drug trade.

Smith is also making a series with Disney and National Geographic, Pole to Pole, that will follow him and his film crew on a 26,000-mile trek from the south pole to the north pole, with pit stops at communities along the way. Like Cain being banished from the settled country for murdering his brother, pilgrimage has long served as an act of penitence. If ever a star were going to reboot their global brand, aping Michael Palin would be the way to do it.

“If these movies do well, then I honestly don’t think there’s anything that can stop him,” says Kintner. “Bad Boys is a well-known action franchise – it’s just the kind of movie that Will Smith’s fans like to see him in. I don’t think they’re going to think much about the Oscars.

“And you’ll notice that no one’s trying to remind them, either. In the trailer, there’s no mention of ‘Oscar-winner Will Smith’. It’s just: ‘Come see this awesome action movie with some of your favourite stars.’ It all goes back to his basic likability – he’s cool, he’s fun, he’s likable. People are looking to forgive him and move on.”

Source: theguardian.com

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