Happy 50th Birthday to the Unknowable Will Smith


Will Smith, who turned fifty yesterday, but could easily pass for thirty, is a fascinating paradox. He’s easily one of the most famous and beloved entertainers in American history yet he’s managed to remain a cipher in the blinding glare of the spotlight for decades. 

Smith has been an enormous, influential and revered performer since he was a precociously talented, preternaturally charming and charismatic teenager performing professionally under the name The Fresh Prince opposite partner DJ Jazzy Jeff. 

Before he was old enough to drink legally Smith released, in 1988’s He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper, Hip Hop’s first-ever double album. For good measure, the triple platinum album also won the very first Grammy Award for Best Rap Performance. Those are some pretty amazing accomplishments for someone who was still a teenager when He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper became the very first album/cassette a whole bunch of white people ever owned, my twelve year old self included. 


Then Smith tackled television as the star of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air en route to becoming, if anything, a far bigger and even more enduring star in movies than he was as a smiling, handsome face and eminently accessible personality who helped make Hip Hop safe and palatable for the suburbs and kid’s birthday parties as well as street jams in the park. 

The old The Onion headline “Will Smith: The Black Man Everyone at Work Can Agree On” says it all. Smith is so successful that his appeal transcends race. He’s Mr. Box Office, the King of the Fourth of July (how sickeningly, disgustingly appropriate) and a two time Oscar nominee. 

We all know Will Smith. The entire thousand year stretch lasting from 2000 to 3000 is unofficially known as the “Willenium” after Smith. That’s power and popularity for you. We know his smile. We know the brash, wisecracking, irreverent but ultimately good-hearted character he plays in pretty much all his movies. We know his beautiful wife and gorgeous, famous children, Jaden and Willow. Will Smith is one of the most famous people in the world and while he’s not quite the box office force he once was he remains a major box office draw. 

Makes sense to me.

Makes sense to me.

At the same time, Smith remains weirdly inscrutable and eccentric. He’s as mainstream as they come but he gives bizarre interviews, sometimes in tandem with his even more unusual son, who seems to have derived his entire personality and sensibility from Kanye West’s Twitter feed. 

When Smith used to show up on David Letterman’s shows to flash that million dollar smile and plug his latest blockbuster movie it felt less like he was being himself than he was once again portraying the role of “Will Smith, effortlessly charming and debonair superstar”, the biggest and most challenging role of his career. 

Who is Will Smith? What does he believe in? What does he dream about? What keeps him awake at now? What are his demons? I have no fucking idea. I honestly don’t. I admire Will Smith. I think he’s smart. I think he’s talented. I think he’s sly and savvy and calculating and ridiculously handsome in an ageless, boyish kind of way. But I don’t know him. And neither do you.


It makes sense that one of Smith’s biggest celebrity pals is Tom Cruise and that he has very publicly dabbled with Scientology, but being the cautious human being that he is, he’s been very careful about separating himself from L. Ron Hubbard’s crazed fame and money cult so that its never-ending stream of bad publicity and toxic press does not reflect negatively on him and the career he has so painstakingly assembled to last in a business where movie stars come and go. 

Like Tom Cruise, Will Smith’s #authenticself feels distinctly inauthentic. Of course Smith would be attracted to a “religion” whose most famous members all seem to be doing weird, only intermittently persuasive impersonations of themselves offscreen.


I have no idea who Will Smith is behind the calculation and the carefully manicured image. Something tells me we’re never going to find out, at least during his lifetime. Nothing becomes a movie star, and Will Smith is nothing if not a major league movie star, quite like making the world feel like they know you while remaining forever an enigma. 

So Happy 50th Birthday, Will Smith, you beautiful, unknowable freak. Something tells me we’ll never get past your dazzling surface to your complicated depths and you wouldn’t have it any other way.  

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The Big WhoopNathan Rabin