It was at college when I was first introduced to the concept of semiotics. As a student, this largely consisted of analysing movie posters, and their attendant meanings.
This came to mind after seeing the teaser poster for the new Will Smith movie, Focus. It was a shot of Smith, but of the back of his head. This is something of a rarity in Hollywood promotion. While there was no doubt of the identity of the poster’s subject, I found it a very curious choice. A choice that my restless mind felt compelled to try and decode.
The movie was released last Friday, the main poster has subsequently changed to give equal attention to Margot Robbie. But the question remains, why the initial poster of the back of Smith’s head?
It’s seldom seen any more, but there was a spell when the sheer bankability of an actor meant that the strategy of their next film poster was simple; 1) Put their face of the cover. 2) Do nothing else.
Take a look at all those posters. The sheer presence of the two men could guarantee huge profit, so it was basic economics to make the movie all about them and then watch the money roll in.
The case could be made that Smith is so iconic that all you need is the back of his head to garner interest. However, like Cruise, Smith’s bankability has dimmed in recent years. He recently stated that the critical and commercial failure of After Earth was the most painful of his career, mainly due to the ripple effect it had on his son’s career.
He also said that it caused his outlook to change in regards to his own career, and that being the box-office king may not be the true watermark of success. My suspicion is that the poster of Focus might actually have been Smith deciding that the competitive world of the cinema box-office is no longer for him, and he’s walking away, leaving the arena for the next generation.
If that’s the case, I’ll be sad to see him go. But I’m also happy that he may begin to take on work that stretches him as an actor. Smith is a legit movie-star, but his skills as an actor are often underrated. While an uneven film, I think the antagonistic edge he gave to his performance in I, Robot was outstanding.
Maybe in years to come, it’ll be appreciated just how noteworthy it was having a Black man as the world’s biggest movie star for a time. Smith had an appeal that only Eddie Murphy (and maybe Richard Pryor) have ever matched. Even Denzel Washington, who had the star power to carry a movie, could never rack up the numbers that Smith could.
One only has to look at the travails of Selma during the award season to see why representation still matters. The image of blackness in our culture can help move the needle on the image of blackness in society. So while Smith may be less of a feature in the mainstream in the future, his career may have indirectly helped the heartening semiotics of Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder.
The promotion people have had to ask themselves what imagery they should use to sell these shows, and in both cases, the poster is of the Black lead, and nothing more. It’s the optics of Black womanhood, front and centre. The picture of Viola Davis carries extra heft, with her being a dark-skinned Black woman.
One can only hope that this becomes normalised to the point where it doesn’t even need to be mentioned any more. But if Smith is at the point where he feels his race has been run as “the man” then he’s more than played his part as a force for good.
 – Quick UK/America translation. College is the equivalent of a high school senior.
 – The little I’ve seen of her work indicates she’s a huge talent, but she also puts me in mind of Pia Glenn’s excellent point about, “an actress so beautiful and talented she’d be considered A-list if only she were white…”
 – I’m already on tenterhooks to see what he does with the role of Deadshot in Suicide Squad.
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History, and is a writer for the Writers of Colour website. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it