Will Smith a Box Office 'Legend'

Will Smith's I Am Legend opened with a record $77 million last weekend. But at what cost comes his mass appeal? Newsweek national correspondent Allison Samuels and Farai Chideya talk about that and other big stories in Hollywood.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya. And this is NEWS & NOTES.

Actor Will Smith may have started his career as the fresh prince, but last weekend, he was crowned box office king. Here with more is Newsweek national correspondent Allison Samuels. Happy Holidays, girl.

Ms. ALLISON SAMUELS (National Correspondent, Newsweek): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So, Will Smith's apocalyptic action movie "I Am Legend" earned more in its opening weekend than "King Kong" or "Lord of the Rings." What kind of dollars are we talking about?

Ms. SAMUELS: Seventy-seven million dollars the opening weekend.

CHIDEYA: Can I get some?

Ms. SAMUELS: Yeah. I know. That's what we'd all like, to get a few of those dollars. But I mean, you know, it's - I don't think it was a surprise because Will has been this huge. He's been sort of growing and growing. And, I think, even last year, a couple of magazines said he was the highest grossing actor in Hollywood surpassing Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and all those people.

So this has been happening. And you look at the type of movies that he does, this action sort of thriller movies - people like that, you know. So I think - and he's a comedian. You know, people love - he is mainstream to the fullest extent.

CHIDEYA: Has he made a distinct business strategy to go about doing these kinds of roles?

Ms. SAMUELS: I think so. I think he knows, A, I think it's what suits him best. You know, his comical style, his sort of sense of humor, his - just his whole demeanor. His, sort of, you know, light, you know, easy going sort of - but who can be serious when he needs to be, but also sort of easy going, likeable.

CHIDEYA: And make sure those biceps are good for the action sequences.

Ms. SAMUELS: Oh, I love those scenes, don't you?

CHIDEYA: Absolutely.

Ms. SAMUELS: I mean, when he was doing this I was, like, okay. He's, you know, he's gorgeous, there's nothing to be said about that. But I think he really makes sure that he does roles that everyone can appreciate and everyone can comment, everyone can sort of enjoy. So I think it's definitely a business strategy and a very smart one because it's worked, you know, very, you know, just very well for him.

His business manager, James Lassiter, I think they've worked together for years and they know what fits him and what doesn't. I mean, he's been with him since "The Fresh Prince" or even before, from Philly. So…

CHIDEYA: Is there any backlash either, you know, in terms of the roles that he takes or in terms of, you know, recently, he's been hanging out a lot with Tom Cruise and his family. He donated money to a scientology literacy campaign. Is there any kind of backlash among some African-Americans as to how he's seen in Hollywood?

Ms. SAMUELS: I don't think it's happening yet, but I do think that the potential is there. And I think the next film he has, which is called "Hancock" which is a - he plays a superhero, and his love interest in that movie is Charlize Theron. And I think that that's going to be very interesting to see how African-Americans sort of relate to that, how they handle that. Because I think there's - he's interest in going so mainstream, at a certain point, I think, you know, people will question that.

I think about Eddie Murphy. A lot of people forget he was the biggest star of the '80s. But it seemed very organic for Eddie. It seemed like it just happened. It didn't seem like it was something that he was intentionally trying to do or that it was very important to him. It - he just happened to appeal to everybody.

With Will, it does seem more like a business strategy. And I just think with the Charlize Theron thing, particularly when you look at the recent Essence or last month's Essence where you have three gorgeous black women who say they can't get jobs. And you have this guy, this major star who has the ability to put them in a movie and he's doing a movie with Charlize Theron who can get a role in any movie with anybody.

So I guess that is one of my major criticisms of him. I did an article when he was in "Hitch" and I talked about, you know, Eva Mendes being his love interest. And I'm just, like, why couldn't have that been Gabrielle Union? Why couldn't have that been, you know, Mia Long? What - why couldn't have those girls have that role? And he called me after the article when he said, oh, you know, I'm trying to do different things. And he made a movie called "Seat Filler" with Kelly Rowland. God bless them, but that movie went straight to (unintelligible), you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. SAMUELS: And you just, sort of, going, that's not the same as these girls getting…

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Ms. SAMUELS: …a big role in a big movie, you know?

CHIDEYA: Can we take a quick tour around the dial? There's a lot going on with this writers' strike in Hollywood. And one thing that's happening is you have a lot of reality TV. How much?

Ms. SAMUELS: Much more than we need. And I think it's going to get, you know, even worse because, I mean, even before the writers' strike, it was definitely, you know, a cheaper way for TV to do business. So I think before the writers' strike, it was overboard. But now, with the writers' strike, I think it gives them this sort of, you know open invitation. It's like, what else can we do to just do shows about everything?

I mean, I keep hearing about Snoop's show which everybody seems to love, which is fascinating to me. And I think as long as you have those kind of shows where people are tuning in like that, it gives them even more reason to sort of do more and more. So I think next year, if this writers' strike doesn't sort of get dealt with in the next couple of weeks, yeah, we're going to just be bombarded.

CHIDEYA: Patti Labelle, "Clash of the Choirs."

Ms. SAMUELS: Right. Yes. That - I love Patti, you know, and she's done a lot of stuff. That one is interesting, I have to say. I've only seen it once and I was like, mm-hmm, okay, all right. But I think there is some talk of Jada Pinkett Smith, Will's wife, doing a reality show about her family. They're in talks. It hasn't been confirmed yet according to her people. But that'll be very interesting to sort of see if that happens, just sort of, like, the life about she and the kids. And I just think that'll be interesting. I don't know. I don't know how people will take that. Because I think there needs to be mystery, and people like you more when there's more mystery.

CHIDEYA: Real tight.

Ms. SAMUELS: Mm-hmm.

CHIDEYA: What did you think of "The Great Debaters"? We're about to hear from Denzel.

Ms. SAMUELS: I love "The Great Debaters." I thought it was an amazing film. He directed it. I thought he did an amazing job directing it. And, you know, everybody was great. The young guys in there, all the young characters I thought were amazing. It's a really uplifting family film.

CHIDEYA: You think it'll open big for Christmas?

Ms. SAMUELS: That's a tough one. I hope so. But I mean, it's Denzel and Oprah so you have to believe that, you know - but it is a permanently African-American film and those - and it's a period piece. So I think those are the kind of things where you just have to hope the star-power of Denzel will bring people out.

CHIDEYA: Well, Allison, it's always great to talk to you.

Ms. SAMUELS: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: Allison Samuels is national correspondent for Newsweek. She joined me in our NPR West Studios.

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