Agnes Scott prof, author of ‘Deconstructing Will Smith,’ predicts the slap won’t hurt his career

Willie Tolliver Jr.: ‘Last night proves the absolute power of his stardom.’

An author of a recent book on Will Smith doesn’t believe the actor’s slap of Chris Rock at the Oscars will doom his career.

“There’s nothing he can do short of murder to alienate his audience,” said Willie Tolliver Jr., an Agnes Scott College English professor and director of film and media studies, who wrote a book called “Will Smith: Race, Masculinity and Global Stardom,” published in January. “Last night proves the absolute power of his stardom.”

Not that this doesn’t sully the moment Smith had Sunday night. He actually won his first best actor Oscar for “King Richard,” playing the titular role of Richard Williams, the hard-driving father of Venus and Serena Williams.

Smith was given a standing ovation after his emotional speech, which was filled with a mix of defiance and regret over his actions.

Tolliver, who has worked as a professor at Agnes Scott since 1996, said Smith has spent his career trying to fight negative stereotypes of Black men as violent and not family oriented: “It’s ironic that at the summit of his career, this happened. This is meaningful to him. He feels he has never earned the full respect as an actor despite having been nominated for Oscars before. It’s sort of sad. The slap takes away from his actual achievement.”

He noted in his book that at a red-carpet event for “Men in Black III” in 2012, Ukranian reporter-turned-prankster Vitalii Sediuk tried to hug and kiss Smith in Moscow. Smith pushed him off and walked away momentarily, then turned around, came back and slapped Sediuk in the face.

“It was the same kind of delayed reaction that happened at the Oscars,” Tolliver said.

The Ukranian reporter, by trying to kiss Smith, was alluding to a time in the early 1990s when Smith refused to kiss another man in character for the film “Six Degrees of Separation.”

“He never lived that down and the reporter [who was later fired for other similar stunts with other celebrities] was deliberately trying to provoke him,” said Tolliver.

He said Smith was not rash or reactive at all in either case. The Oscar slap, he said, “seemed awfully performative to me. It seemed intentional... Will Smith has spent his career creating a certain persona to the public and something sort of slipped and the real person was momentarily revealed.”

He said Smith in his acceptance speech tried to “collapse” his own persona defending the honor of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith over Rock’s joke with Williams defending his family from the white tennis establishment as well as skeptics in his neighborhood in Compton.

“Will Smith does a kind of acting that makes you remember who he is,” Tolliver said. “In this film, I found him almost unrecognizable. He really disappeared into the character. I found it interesting he used that moment to make the connection between him and Richard.”

Smith, 53, has tried to convey a certain type of old-school masculinity over the years in films ranging from “Bad Boys” and “Men in Black” to “I Am Legend” to “I, Robot,” from “Hancock” to “Suicide Squad.” Over three decades, he has built a broad-based worldwide popularity that few have matched in terms of box-office success. According to The Numbers, his 29 films as lead actor have generated more than $6.5 billion in box office revenue worldwide, placing him ninth all time.

“I spend the book explaining his appeal and how his movie choices shaped his persona,” Tolliver said. “He’s been successful in terms of knowing his audience and staying within their expectations.”

Tolliver said Smith, at this point in his life, “has achieved a kind of autonomy from his profile and reputation. Folks like him have a sense they are invincible, that they can do something that is transgressive.”

Smith is also taking on roles recently that are more socially conscious. After “King Richard,” he shot “Emancipation,” a film coming out later this year based on a true story where he plays a slave named Peter who escapes from a Louisiana plantation, outwits cold-blooded hunters and joins the Union army. The movie was originally going to shoot in Georgia but moved to Louisiana after the state passed restrictive voting laws that many opponents saw as anti-Black.

“He is no longer pursuing success for its own sake,” Tolliver said. “The Oscar is vindication for him. This can only give him confidence to move forward and take even more chances.”

Tolliver said he was struggling to find a way to finish his Smith book until the 2019 film “Gemini Man” came along, where Smith plays a retiring hitman targeted by a much younger cloned version of himself.

“I thought it was a perfect metaphor,” he said. “A younger version of Will pursuing Will. He can’t go back and be that young action hero anymore.”