05. Captain Steven Hiller
Independence Day (1996)
Though Smith had already established himself as a household name, his performance as Capt. Steven Hiller—a fighter pilot who teams up with genius David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) to combat an invading alien force—is the classic Will Smith performance.
Roland Emmerich’s Independence Day perfectly captures the magic and charisma that would make Smith into a superstar. In it, he steals a chopper, flies an interstellar ship, and punches an alien in the face. Confident, squeaky clean, and achingly cool, the role signaled the “young hotshot” ethos that would define Smith’s career in a mix of comedic, action, heroic, and dramatic chops.
The Smith/aliens combo worked so well, he took on a similar construct in his 1997 follow-up, Men in Black.
Best Line: “This was supposed to be my weekend off, but noooo, you got me out here, draggin’ your heavy ass through the burning desert, with your dreadlocks sticking out the back of my parachute. You gotta come down here with an attitude, actin’ all big and bad. And what the hell is that smell? I coulda been at a barbecue, but I ain’t mad.”
Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
There’s something strange and quietly special about Smith’s performance in Six Degrees of Separation. The stage play turned into a film had the actor working in the realm of high-brow humor with a splash of Woody Allen’s version of New York. His role as Paul, a con man who infiltrates a group of Fifth Avenue socialites under the guise of being the son of Sidney Poitier with a pitch for the movie version of Cats in hand (oddly predicting a nightmarish future), is his most daring and complex work to date.
The accompanying cast includes a murderers’ row of performers approaching the twilight of their careers including Donald Sutherland, Stockard Channing, and Ian McKellen going toe to toe with a burgeoning talent who was only known as a novelty rapper and sitcom star. It’s an impressive feat to say the least watching Smith, who in actuality was a skillful lyricist in his own right create rhythmic poetry with an already juicy screenplay.
This is the only time Smith has played an overtly queer character. He crafted a portrait of a person who feels ostracized from the world, and who tries to create a reality that would foster opportunity where he otherwise would not be accepted. Paul is ready to compete in a society that rewards survival of the fittest, and Smith’s performance complements the intellect by pushing knowledge to the point of being outright sexy.
Best Line: “Why is life in the 20th century so focused on the very beginning and very end of life? What about the 80 years we have to live between those two inexorable bookends?”
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990-96)
No television program has ever introduced an actor better than the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ushered in Will Smith. The character’s name is Will, and “in west Philadelphia born and raised,” the literal Philli-native raps over the series’ theme. And through 148 episodes, audiences were treated to the actor’s musical talents, dancing skills, comedic timing, and effortless cool. The recurring role also set a precedent for the majority of his characters during the first phase of his career (again, hot shots maturing), in addition to his uncanny ability to play off his costars, particularly father figures like Uncle Phil (James Avery).
Two episodes, in particular, combine father figures and maturity. In Season 4, “Papa’s Got a Brand New Excuse”, Will’s father returns, and Will desperately craves his dad’s affection, even to the point of rebelling against Uncle Phil. But when his dad runs out on him again, he’s left collapsing into Avery’s arms asking, “How come he don’t want me?”, in a heartbreaking display of dramatic emotion.
Later, in the series finale — whose final shot of Will staring at an empty living room has now become iconic through memes — Will says goodbye to the family and his surrogate father Uncle Phil. Will is still charming, but also an adult. He chooses not to be transient or irresponsible anymore; he decides to remain in California to earn his Bachelor’s degree. Looking back, the entire arc of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air perfectly introduces a young actor, carefully displays and grows his best abilities, and sets him off to graduate to greater success.
Best Line: Carlton Banks: “I thought Ashley was in bed.” Will: “Yeah, and you also thought Tupac Shakur was a Jewish holiday.”
02. Agent J
Men In Black (1997)
The Summer of 1997 had Smith caught in the middle of a career transition that would catapult him into a new stratosphere of fame. This was his gap year in between the conclusion of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1996 and his platinum selling album Big Willie Style in 1998. So, naturally, Smith used this time to jump into his second science fiction film in as many years. Men In Black is arguably Smith’s most iconic film performance. While it may not be his most profound piece of work, the franchise sparked a distinct look that, for better or worse, makes its way into many Halloween wardrobes.
This would mark the beginning of Smith’s four collaborations with director Barry Sonnenfeld. While he’s not a movie star that thrives on working with auteur directors, per se, Smith found a nice groove living in an alternative universe where your bodega man could be an alien undercover. As the hotshot agent in training “J”, Smith settled in as a family-friendly loudmouth, complete with one-liners and displaying a physicality that ran the gamut of slapstick comedy to action star. In one scene he’s jumping across buildings, and in the next, he’s getting vomited on by an infant extraterrestrial.
In many ways, Smith was breaking boundaries as far as representation on screen, while still finding room to subvert expectations. If there was anything that plotted the course for the bulk of Smith’s career, it was that sleek black suit and Ray-bans.
Best Line: “The difference between you and me, I make this look good.” This line my come off as a bit corny today, but this was Smith’s coming out party. His announcement that a new presence in blockbuster cinema was dawning.
01. Muhammed Ali
“The champ is here!”
Captain Hiller might be Smith’s signature role, but his best performance remains Muhammed Ali for Michael Mann’s 2001 biopic of the famed boxer. Throughout most of his career, Smith’s typically played some semblance of himself and relied on his natural traits. While the historic pugilist possessed many of those same attributes, be it charm, swagger, or humor, Ali stands as one of the rare examples of Smith immersing himself into a character.
For one, he had to learn Ali’s fighting style. In every boxing match, the actor displays the fighter’s signature head movements, the hands positioned too low (daring the opponent to charge), the strut, and the muscle. Smith studied Ali’s cadence and vocal intonations, turning in an uncanny resemblance, too. For many, the heavyweight champion was a God, but Smith plays him as a flawed, insecure human. It’s in these more quiet, introspective scenes — such as Ali ruminating on his future with the Nation of Islam — that say as much about the man as any boisterous rhyme or fight.
This approach required nerve on the part of the actor, and given Ali’s importance as a historical figure and emblem of pride and courage, Smith’s never taken on a role with as much pressure to get it right — and Smith does. He is Ali. And through which, he became an Oscar nominee.
Best Line: “I ain’t draft dodging. I ain’t burning no flag. I ain’t running to Canada. I’m staying right here. You want to send me to jail? Fine, you go right ahead. I’ve been in jail for 400 years. I could be there for four or five more, but I ain’t going no 10,000 miles to help murder and kill other poor people. If I want to die, I’ll die right here, right now, fightin’ you, if I want to die. You my enemy, not no Chinese, no Vietcong, no Japanese. You my opposer when I want freedom. You my opposer when I want justice. You my opposer when I want equality. Want me to go somewhere and fight for you? You won’t even stand up for me right here in America, for my rights and my religious beliefs. You won’t even stand up for my rights here at home.”