Remember the Fresh Prince Will Smith? Wicki-wicki-wild-wild-wild-west Will Smith? Goofball Will Smith?
That Will Smith was one of the greatest, and probably best-loved, comic actors of the Nineties and early Noughties. The multi-industry success achieved in his 20s and 30s – as a hip-hop artist, sitcom star and Hollywood leading man – was largely thanks to his guileless exuberance and larger-than-life physicality. A big kid in bright colours and baseball caps; he was family-friendly, but charismatic and self-assured. He offered an aspirational masculinity, but one grounded in wholesomeness and silliness. His was an irresistible charm. Well, that Will Smith is still here – on Instagram.
Smith made no secret of his ambition to be “the biggest movie star in the world”. But after earning Oscar noms for his biographical performances in Ali and The Pursuit of Happyness, something went wrong. In 2018, Smith comes off the back of a string of critical and commercial bombs: the overly earnest, roundly-mocked Collateral Beauty, “crushingly puerile” meme-fodder Suicide Squad, and the “painfully derivative” Netflix film Bright. Just last month, Richard Brody in the New Yorker claimed “Smith is at risk of becoming the new Tom Cruise”: a once-charming star, burdened by too many terrible projects, now an embarrassment.
But just before Christmas, 49-year-old Smith joined Instagram and started posting videos. Some are vlogger-style inspirational videos, like the one where he quotes the poet Rumi (“Set your life on fire. Seek those who fan your flames”) and adds, “The Philly translation of that is: don’t be hanging with no jank ass jokers that don’t help you shine.” Some show off his comedy skills full-force: like the parody recreation of his sincerely hipster son Jayden Smith’s flashy music video “Icon”. In one, he proves he can still solve the Rubik’s Cube. In Australia, he films himself feeding a crocodile, with the silly-voiced intro: “Uh, welcome to the Will Smith’s first episode of When Dumb People Get Bit”. Much of it verges on corny Dad territory – but that’s part of its charm: just as he did in the Nineties, Smith offers a wholesome joy that millennials call “pure”, or “too good for this earth”.
And just like that, Smith is ascendant once more. In the two months since joining, he has racked up over 8 million followers. Beyond Instagram, on other social networking sites, clips of his videos, along with fans’ declarations of love for them, go viral. “Following Will Smith on Instagram restored my faith in silliness,” one user writes, with over 8,000 favourites. They’re already much-memed: a video of a young man frantically taking notes is captioned, “Me as soon as Will Smith posts an Instagram video preaching life lessons and handing out keys.” Inkoo Kang writes in Slate, “Smith’s Instagram is so compelling because his photos and videos feel like behind-the-scenes images from a sitcom where the movie star is rewriting TV dad–dom.” British culture writer Bim Adewunmi observes that Smith’s “Instagram renaissance” is, fittingly, a “fulfilment of his true destiny: to be an internet-Uncle Phil for millennials.” If you miss the Will Smith of the Nineties – you’re in luck. He’s only a few taps away.