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As the summer reaches peak heat and humidity, my overheated brain turned to the interaction of Will and will. Will Smith’s greatest artistic work was about the will to succeed. It blew apart the dominant cultural narratives, of black men as economic losers, and of American capitalism as a rigged system. At the same time, Will did not sugarcoat reality, faithfully conveying Chris Gardner’s autobiographical story about the pursuit of happiness.
Will Smith leveraged a middle-class safe-rapper persona into the starring role in a situation comedy, from which he launched into Hollywood stardom. In the late 1980s, he performed as The Fresh Prince with DJ Jazzy Jeff, achieving enough success to attract the attention of television studios. “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” was a play on the old Beverly Hillbillies, updated with a streetwise kid from Philadelphia being sent to live with relatives in Bel Air.
Six seasons of television success postured Smith for comedy roles on the big screen and he became a money-making machine. Adjusted for ticket price inflation, his movies have generated:
Adjusted Total: $4,917,025,000
Along the way, he also managed to flex into deadly serious roles. The 2006 film Pursuit of Happyness, in which he acted with his young son, stands out among his serious roles, including Ali and Concussion. The title comes from the Declaration of Independence, while the spelling comes from a sign Chris Gardner saw while homeless.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
Note that we are not endowed with happiness, or entitled to happiness, only endowed with the right to pursue happiness. That pursuit, for Chris Gardner, included an enlisted stint in the Navy, followed by a struggling career as a medical device salesman. Instead of settling, even with a toddler son, Gardner seized on a dream of great success.
That dream was sparked by a curbside encounter with an older white man, in sharp but not flashy attire, stepping out of a gleaming red Ferrari. “Two questions: what do you do and how do you do it?” The first answer was the man was a stockbroker. The second answer turned out to be an unpaid course of training, that would put Chris Gardner and his toddler son in homeless shelters or the BART bathroom stalls for almost a year. Those scenes are harrowing without any exaggeration.
At the end of the day, Chris Gardner kept his promise to never abandon his son, and got very rich, and has done a great deal of good in this world. He praised Will Smith’s portrayal in the book’s acknowledgments, published shortly before the movie was released. If you have not watched the movie, do so, watching an indomitable will, tempered by an unyielding morality.