Brief History is a column that tells you all you need to know about your favorite — and not so favorite — pop culture topics. This entry looks at Will Smith’s current Oscar buzz for King Richard and his past criticisms of the Academy.
Will Smith may soon get his Oscar. He stars as Richard Williams, the father and coach of tennis legends Serena and Venus Williams, in the new biopic King Richard. And after the film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival, Oscar buzz ensued. A number of critics and journalists began to speculate the actor may finally get his due at the next Academy Awards.
Smith, who has received two nominations in the past, has also been critical of the Oscars. Most notably, he emerged as one of the most prominent voices during the #OscarsSoWhite campaign of 2016.
As we prepare for the release of King Richard and more reactions to Smith’s potentially award-winning performance, here is a brief history of the actor’s relationship with the Academy Awards.
Will Smith’s Past Oscar Nominations and the Whiteness of the Awards
Only four Black men have won the Oscar for Best Actor since the Academy Awards began in 1929. Sidney Poitier became the first to receive a nomination in 1959, for his performance in The Defiant Ones. He then won the award in 1964 for Lilies of the Field.
Another Black man would not win an Oscar until the next century. Denzel Washington was named Best Actor in 2002 for his performance in Training Day. That same year, Will Smith received his first Oscar nomination for playing boxing legend Muhammad Ali in Ali. That marked the first time two Black men were nominated in the category at the same time.
Also in 2002, Halle Berry became the first Black woman to win the Academy Award for Best Actress, for her performance in Monster’s Ball. No Black woman has won in the category since.
Smith and his wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith, left the ceremony before finding out whether Smith won, causing some to speculate they’d learned in advance that Washington would win. But as Entertainment Weekly reported shortly afterward, the couple departed early because their daughter Willow, then a year-and-a-half years old, had a fever of 103 degrees and was taken to the hospital.
In 2004, Jamie Foxx became the third Black man to win in the category for his performance in Ray.
Two years later, Smith received his second nomination for his lead role in The Pursuit of Happiness. In that film, he plays another real person, Chris Gardner, who went from working as a salesman while homeless to forming his own company. Smith lost to Forrest Whittaker, who became the fourth Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar, for his work in The Last King of Scotland.
In 2015, Will Smith starred in another biographical drama, Concussion. This time he portrayed Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered CTE in the brains of former NFL players. Smith’s performance generated Oscar buzz at the time of the film’s release, but he received no nomination.
Smith’s snub for his performance in Concussion came during a time labeled as #OscarsSoWhite. The movement began a year prior from activist April Reign, who originated the hashtag on Twitter.
The 2016 Academy Awards marked the second consecutive year in which all 20 acting nominees were white. After the nominations were announced, Jada Pinkett Smith became one of the first performers to call for a boycott of the year’s show. In the days that followed, a number of performers and filmmakers announced they would honor the call, including her husband.
After Will Smith made his decision not to attend the Oscars ceremony, people began to attribute his decision to the snub for Concussion. He quickly pushed back against such a suggestion. He told ABC’s Robin Roberts on Good Morning America (via Variety):
“This is so deeply not about me. This is about children that are going to sit down and watch this show and they’re not going to see themselves represented.”
Smith attributed his decision, in part, to Pinkett Smith’s public statements. In the same interview, he said:
“There’s a position that we hold in this community and if we’re not a part of the solution, we’re part of the problem. And it was her call to action for herself and for me and for our family to be a part of the solution.”
While the Academy has taken steps in recent years to address its whiteness, systemic problems still remain.
Reactions to King Richard
Directed by Reinaldo Marcus Green, King Richard has received an overwhelmingly positive response in the wake of its premiere. Zach Baylin wrote the script. Saniyya Sidney plays Venus Williams, Demi Singleton plays Serena Williams, and Aunjanue Ellis plays their coach and mother, Oracene “Brandy” Price.
The film follows Will Smith as Richard Williams, chronicling his role as a coach, mentor, and father to two of the greatest tennis players and athletes who ever lived.
In Variety, Clayton Davis writes of the film and its Oscar buzz:
“King Richard is the Rocky of tennis movies, but also the Rocky for every Black child that will watch this and be inspired to greatness in the future, the kind of inspiration our community doesn’t often see.”
Both Venus and Serena serve as executive producers on the film. According to a recent profile of Smith in GQ magazine, there were times while watching when Smith was so convincing in the role that Serena had to remind herself that it was the actor and not her actual father.
In the same article, Smith told GQ:
“Richard Williams is a lot like my father. So when I first read [the script], I understood what it’s like to want your kids to succeed. I had done it a little bit with my kids. I understood what it was to try to mold a young mind, how it’s different with sons than it is with daughters.”
Should Smith win at next year’s Academy Awards, his relationship with the Oscars will have an interesting symmetry. It will have begun with him, as a new father, rushing out of the awards show to see his young daughter at the hospital. And it will end with him honored for playing a father on the big screen. Only time will tell.
King Richard hits theaters on November 19, 2021.