With Focus, Will Smith’s movie career has finally come full circle. No, it’s not just that the film is a minor hit and a welcome return to form for the actor after 2013’s disastrous After Earth. Rather, Focus returns Smith to a role he had not played since he launched his film career in 1993’s Six Degrees of Separation: the con man. It is a natural role for any movie star – a con artist has to be good-looking, charming, and, above all, a good actor – but Smith eases into these roles particularly well. His movie star persona is that of a streetwise outsider, and he likely could have landed a franchise of con man movies, if Hollywood was not having such trouble these days figuring out how to do them right.
Smith is terrific in Focus, as he was in Six Degrees, but the comparison between the two shows how much depictions of race in Hollywood have changed. In Six Degrees, Smith is a small-time hustler who ingratiates himself to an aristocratic Manhattan couple played by Donald Sutherland and Stockard Channing. Smith’s career has always been carefully managed, and it is easy to see why he and his handlers would have seen the role of Paul as a good transition from TV to film. It is like an indie version of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in that Smith’s character throws an upper-crust family into chaos with his inner-city sensibility. In Fresh Prince, it was played for wacky fish-out-of-water comedy, but Six Degrees is more interested in how Paul’s blackness exposes the fragility of the family’s superiority, and why they see him as authentic, even while they know he is lying to their faces.
Of course, Six Degrees is told from the perspective of the rich, white people, with Paul’s race depicted as a kind of oddity. This is not a failure of the film; any work of art attempting comment on the social issues of its day leaves itself open to future criticism. But it worth noting what has changed. In Focus, his race is no longer part of the con. His character, Nicky, is never referred to as black in the film, nor is it ever an issue that he romances a white woman. A late scene reveals that Nicky’s father is actually white, and the film amazingly never even bothers to explain this. Focus simply shows us a world in which race is irrelevant, and the audience has seemed to accept this reality.
If Focus can be read as a sign of racial progress in the movies, perhaps Smith himself had something to do with it. The issue of diversity in pop culture has gained serious traction in the last two decades, and while Smith has certainly benefited from our nation’s slow but steady evolution on race, he also may have led us there.
After Six Degrees, he carefully, incrementally distanced himself from the Fresh Prince ethos, the streetwise outsider who shakes up the white establishment. He continued to rely on it for the early studio films that established him as global star, such as Independence Day and Men in Black. But then came a series of movies in which he asked viewers to accept him as a star without any white characters to represent the audience perspective. There was Hitch, a traditional rom-com in which his character engaged in a biracial relationship with an Hispanic (Eva Mendes); Hancock, which is probably only the second studio film ever featuring a black superhero (after Blade and not counting Shazam); and I Am Legend, in which Smith nearly matches Tom Hanks in Cast Away by anchoring the film’s first hour completely solo (except for a dog). Smith’s outsider spirit was still present in these films – viewers have a hard time when movie stars abandon their personas completely – but it is never tied to his race.
In revising the archetype that launched his film career, Focus is in some ways a culmination. Comparing the film to Six Degrees, it seems a racially progressive work and a benchmark in the struggle for diversity in film. And yet it’s not a great movie. It is full of con man movie clichés, poor dialogue, laughable attempts at character development, and a series of third-act twists that strains one’s suspension of disbelief. Some have rightly found fault with the film’s treatment of women. Is it fair to say that a movie as shallow and dumb as Focus is more racially uplifting than Six Degrees, which has a few blind spots but also intelligently explores contemporary social dynamics? The lesson here is that progress towards the goal of diversity in film can come in many forms. It must, in fact, if true diversity is to be achieved. Having worked in nearly every genre and art form imaginable, Smith will deserve a little credit when we get there and Focus, despite its flaws, is an important step along the way.