Will Smith Taps Nostalgia as He Attempts a Post-Slap Comeback

Will Smith Taps Nostalgia as He Attempts a Post-Slap Comeback

During the Latin pop star J Balvin’s set at Coachella in April, a surprise guest star suddenly appeared onstage: Will Smith, wearing a familiar black suit and sunglasses, launched into the title song of “Men in Black,” his 1997 Hollywood blockbuster.

It was the beginning of a frenetic spring for Smith as he carefully re-enters the public eye to promote “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” his first wide-release movie since he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars in 2022, a move that threatened to derail his career.

Smith has been back walking red carpets, bantering on “The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon” and eating spicy chicken until his eyes watered on “Hot Ones,” the popular YouTube show. He told Fallon his publicity tour had taken him to eight cities in 12 days, with stops in Dubai and in Riyadh for what he described as the first Hollywood premiere in Saudi Arabia.

“Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” the latest entry in a nearly three-decade old franchise, is opening nationwide on Friday. The film industry will be closely watching how it does to see whether the moviegoing public is ready to welcome Smith back after an event so shocking and ignominious that it achieved proper-noun status: the Slap.

Whether by accident or agreement, the Slap has not come up much in Smith’s prerelease publicity blitz. But the film itself seems to refer to it, archly, as several critics have noted: In it, Smith gets slapped by his co-star, Martin Lawrence, and called a “bad boy.”

Lawrence appeared on “The Tonight Show” with Smith and praised him effusively. “He is one of the most professional actors out there, most talented actors out there, he has a brilliant mind, he’s a genius and he’s upstanding,” he said.

Some analysts said that Smith’s decision to tap into nostalgia for his return was savvy.

“It was smart to make a movie that’s part of a franchise, that people are familiar with, and his audience, his core fans, would like,” said Fred Cook, the former chairman of the public relations agency Golin and a professor at the University of Southern California.

Smith, 55, broke out in the late 1980s as part of the hip-hop duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince. His sitcom, NBC’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” ran for six seasons in the 1990s, leaving behind a theme song that to this day many a Millennial can recite on command.

Beginning in 1995, Smith starred in a string of hit movies — the original “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day,” “Men in Black,” “Wild Wild West” — that established him as a premier leading man who had achieved broad popularity.

“He was definitely seen in the mid-to-late 1990s and 2000s as a star who transcended race,” said Brandy Monk-Payton, a professor of media studies at Fordham University. “He had blockbuster films and crossover status, being able to bring in not only Black but also white audiences.”

Joe Quenqua, a veteran communications and crisis consultant, said, “There are few people in this industry who were as beloved as Will Smith prior to this incident.”

The night of the Slap, Smith seemed poised to take his career to a whole new level: he was about to win his first Academy Award for his performance as Venus and Serena Williams’s father and tennis coach in “King Richard.”

What happened next, millions watched on live television. Rock, the comedian who was hosting the Oscars, joked about the short haircut of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who had spoken of her alopecia diagnosis. Will Smith, sitting next to her, walked up to Rock, slapped him hard in the face and, after returning to his seat shouted, “Keep my wife’s name out of your mouth,” using an expletive that ABC bleeped out of the telecast.

Minutes later, Smith collected his trophy with a defiant speech. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said. “Art imitates life.”

Days later, Smith issued a contrite statement and resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A week later, the Academy banned him from attending the Oscars for 10 years. His next movie, “Emancipation” (2022), a $120-million film that had been seen as a likely awards season darling, was issued to a whimper. Then Pinkett Smith released a memoir revealing that the couple had been separated since 2016.

A spokeswoman for Smith declined to comment for this article. A spokeswoman for Sony, which is distributing and producing “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” did not respond to an inquiry.

At the Los Angeles premiere of “Bad Boys: Ride or Die,” where Smith was greeted by cheers on Hollywood Boulevard, a reporter from Variety asked him about the fans who have stuck by him. “It’s not just here,” Smith replied, standing beside Lawrence. “It’s all over the world. Every time we step out together, it’s nothing but love. I think the fans are ride or die also.”

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