Will Smith thinks there's a problem with the discussion around race in Hollywood today: a confusion, or at least a lack of precision, about two of the issue's key terms.
Smith, who's getting serious Oscar buzz for his role as Dr. Bennet Omalu in the upcoming movie "Concussion," was asked about this highly charged issue during The Hollywood Reporter's awards-season Actor Roundtable. Smith explained that he and wife Jada Pinkett Smith had just been talking about the crucial difference between "racism" and "prejudice."
"Everybody is prejudiced," he said. "Everybody has their life experiences that make them prefer one thing over another -- it makes them prefer blond hair over a brunette; if you see somebody with dark skin walking down the street, you have a different reaction than you have [with] someone who is 5-foot-1 and white."
The word "racism," he said, implies something worse: the feeling that "your race generally is superior."
"And I have to say, I live with constant prejudice, but racism is actually rare -- someone who thinks their race is superior," Smith continued.
Smith said that, on the rare occasions when he's encountered someone in Hollywood who's actually racist, he's immediately decided not to work with them. And, he said, it does happen.
A moment later, the interviewer asked if actors could do anything to fight this kind of racism. The other African-American actor on the panel, Samuel L. Jackson, answered with a simple "No." But Smith was more optimistic about their chances.
"As actors, we have the ultimate power," he said. "Historically, story combined with imagery moves humanity forward. What we do -- not that it’s a responsibility, but it is the ultimate forum for changing people’s hearts and minds."
These latest statements are consistent with several others Smith has made in the past. In February, for example, he said that fixing America's race problem will require change that will be "so brutal and so painful."
But that's actually a somewhat new attitude for Smith. As recently as 2010, he said that Hollywood executives care far more about race than they do about money. At that point, Smith's acting and singing had been generating tons of money for decades -- which may have inoculated him from, and even blinded him to, the worst behaviors in Hollywood. Going back even further, for example, he called 1999 "a great time to be black in Hollywood."
The past few years have been famously tough on Smith's career -- several big-budget movies of his bombed badly. It's possible, even probable, that he's been treated differently as a result -- waking him up to the hardships some of his peers have always faced.
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