Will Smith's American Dream

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The Pursuit of Happyness
Directed by Gabriele Muccino

Will Smith has come a long way from being the token black guy of big-budget summer blockbusters like Independence Day, Men in Black and Wild Wild West to being the producer and star of The Pursuit of Happyness. It’s yet another product of the Hollywood system, but this time with a personal message: I got mine, get yours.

Smith telegraphs this point with the quick smile and easy charm that have made him a star ever since the “Parents Just Don’t Understand” hit music video. The Pursuit of Happyness uses the same teen-oriented perspective: It’s an urban legend (or tall-tale) variation on the possibilities of prosperity. Smith plays Chris Gardner, a black man in San Francisco whose wife (Thandie Newton) walks out on him, leaving him to raise his 5-year-old son, Christopher (Jaden Smith). Gardner and son suffer the hard-knock life of homelessness, sleeping in shelters, restrooms and bus stations until he seizes an opportunity at a brokerage firm. The Pursuit of Happyness might as well be a black version of the Ridley Scott/Russell Crowe fantasy A Good Year, because it has a pre-set, benign vision of privilege and luck—a capitalist’s notions of grace.

Even though this story is based on the real-life experience of stock trader Chris Gardner (who told his tale in a best-selling book and on ABC’s “20/20”), Smith has turned it into a big screen fairytale. Smith preaches that privilege and luck are available to all. In many ways, The Pursuit of Happyness is an extrapolation of hip-hop’s familiar bootstrap ethic—the determination to succeed that was commodified by the 1988 Boogie Down Productions’ album By Any Means Necessary. That album, with its shameless cover of KRS-One imitating Malcolm X posing with a gun, traduced black American political experience. It made harsh social history the stuff of cynical yet naive adolescent excitation.

As a pop artist, Smith was always more charming than KRS-One—and smarter, too. Smith understands how hip-hop politics have changed from facile ideas about gangsterism and “revolution” to three-piece-suit ideas about cooperation and corporatizing. This film’s oddly-spelled title even seems like one of those annoyingly misspelled hip-hop artist’s brand names intentionally designed to connote and exploit black folks’ once-enforced illiteracy. But Smith commands the newly acquired finesse of the nouveau riche. With the glib assistance of director Gabriele Muccino and screenwriter Steven Conrad, Smith domesticates hip-hop gangsterism—as well as the real Gardner’s desperation—into family-movie sentimentality.

The work world depicted in The Pursuit of Happyness is never as offensively false as The Devil Wears Prada. Prejudice and entitlement in the business sphere are more openly acknowledged here (and its harsh edges joked away), if only because the triumph over such adversity is part of the myth Smith is selling. (The trick of making it big in the corporate world is symbolized by Gardner’s ease with a Rubik’s cube.) In the film’s production kit, Smith states: “I saw this story as the embodiment of the American dream. The concept this country is based on is the hope that any person armed with their own will and determination can create their life, can create their situation—from the lowest of the low to the highest of the high.” The film itself is never that blunt; it cleverly sneaks-in bald-faced capitalist faith (and its concomitant indifference to the history of slavery and institutionalized racism) under the guise of sweetness and willpower.

Another shrewd ploy is Smith casting his own son to play out a Chaplinesque father-son dynamic—check out the genealogical progression from Smith’s knotty-haired toupee to Jaden Smith’s bushy-curly locks. Urban legend takes on a tabloid, style-based authenticity. This man/child in the promised land myth is never so moving as the social and psychic intimacy that Gianni Amelio conveyed in Keys to the House (the finest father-son movie since Sounder and The Bicycle Thief). And it must be sad that the great Akeelah and the Bee was a more complex depiction of African-American ambition. These differences are worth noting in order to identify how Will Smith pushes recognizable buttons without ever going to the heart of things.

Success is all that matters in The Pursuit of Happyness because it’s the one idea that hip-hop artists have learned they can sell to America, and the world, unilaterally. In The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin observed that the next generation of black youth “really are of another era, part of what happened when the Negro left the land and came into what the late E. Franklin Frazier called ‘the cities of destruction.’” Will Smith implies that the cities are now conquerable—the Chris Gardner story is merely a brick in that public monument Smith is building to himself. Worse, The Pursuit of Happyness suggests that the drive for success is what defines Americans. In other words, Smith is no longer merely a figurine fronting the Hollywood institution; he now owns a piece of the plantation.

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