Is Obama the Will Smith of politics?

2008-01-12 00:00

Los Angeles — The early numbers pointed to the potential viability of Senator Barack Obama’s candidacy as the Democratic presidential nominee. But in this case, the data in question were not the early returns from Iowa or New Hampshire.

Instead, the tell-tale numbers were the opening-day grosses for Will Smith’s latest movie I Am Legend. The movie beat even the most upbeat expectations by grossing $30,1 million on its first day of release in the U.S. last month, and has gone on to take in more than $230 million domestically.

Pop culture often can suggest answers to questions posed in the political sphere. And if one of the questions surrounding Obama’s campaign before his own breakthrough performance in Iowa, was whether he could hope to transcend race, Smith’s career suggests that there is a sizable audience in America that no longer views every black male through the prism of race.

With I am Legend, Smith consolidated his standing as Hollywood’s biggest current boxoffice draw, supplanting such previous standard-bearers as Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise. What stands out along the trajectory of his film career is how often he has played characters for whom race is not a defining factor. While the actor hasn’t shied away from the subject in such movies as Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happiness, he’s found even bigger success in roles where he simply plays a man of action.

His film career first took off when he strapped on his flight suit as a fighter pilot who joins forces with Bill Pullman’s president to shoot down aliens in 1996’s Independence Day. And, though the current I am Legend is set in a futuristic New York, as Smith strides across the screen — accompanied by just his rifle and his dog — he actually plays one of the most American of archetypes: the lone frontiersman whose lineage can be traced all the way back to the novels of James Fenimore Cooper.

Moviegoers of all ages and ethnicities turning out for Smith’s star turn in I am Legend, should have sent a signal to the political commentators that voters, particularly younger voters, might well be willing to similarly applaud a candidate like Obama, who presents himself as a standard-bearer not just for his party or for race, but for a broader coalition of potential voters.

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