Sir Lenny vs. Big Willie

In an interview with the United Kingdom’s Sunday People newspaper, entertainment legend Sir Lenny Henry issued some harsh observations. In a one on one that covered everything from his beginnings to where the business of show is headed, somewhere in the midst of it all this happened:

“If a movie makes more than a hundred dollars, some black people stop being black – they ­become Will Smith.”

Oh shit! Thems fightin’ words.

Ok, before the brawl for ultimate blackness, let’s add a little context to Sir Henry’s assessment. He was asked about diversity in the BBC, which he deemed “very, very white”, and in show business overall. He lambasted TV and movie execs for practices he considered “oppressive”; that seems legit. He also feels television and motion pictures do a shit job of mirroring a multicultural society; 3 for 3. He also said the Oscars were “ridiculous” and added this hilarious quip.


“The only brown person nominated was the bear in the Leo DiCaprio film The Revenant”

I don’t care what you say, that’s funny as shit.

But why go out on my man Big Willie Style? Fuck did he do to you, Lenny? Nothing in particular I’m sure, but why take vitriolic shots at him and only him? What makes Smith the litmus for house niggerdom?

It seems like Will Smith has been hearing shit like this since the 90’s. During and after the successful run of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, a litany of gold and platinum albums, and grossing hundreds of million dollars at the box office, Will has always been the poster boy for the “out of touch negro”. The guy who worked his way from the fields and into the house and stayed in. Even many in Overbrook and Wynnfield, his old stomping grounds in Philly, have a little venom for the kid they once claimed as theirs, citing his philanthropy around the world and not their own neighborhood. Now, Wynnfield ain’t exactly the slums. Shit, it actually used to be a suburb; but I digress.


Sir Henry’s history in entertainment date back to the late 1970’s. However, although critically lauded and knighted by the Queen of England, its safe to say he’ll never be able to walk in Smith’s shoes in terms of commercial success. That naturally comes with his own brand of saltiness.

Known as one who’s spent an entire career being outspoken on entertainment’s lack of diversity, Henry’s voice is and has been a necessary one. However, once blackness, or lack thereof, is brought into conversation, it’s easy to dismiss it as just some hating shit; just another crab trying desperately to pull an almost freed kinsmen back into the barrel. All the while not knowing that getting out of said barrel comes with its own set of perils. On the other hand, decades of frustration being surrounded by white faces can have its effect on how a person thinks about the success of others.

“I worked at the BBC for 35 years before I had a meeting with anyone who looks like me. The only people like me were cleaning the corridors and that is not right. You walk into the Beeb and it is very, very white. That is not anybody’s fault. You can be in an oppressive institution and not be an oppressor. All the diversity work that has been going on is appreciated – but until behind the camera is sorted out you are not going to see much change. This is not personal. This is for people who get doors slammed in their face because it does not fit, or they are in a wheelchair, or they are a woman, transgender or gay.” – Sir Lenny Henry

That has got to be a bit of a mind fuck, so I understand the psychology of a man who may feel like his people, their stories, and their contributions have been marginalized. The trouble comes when a guy sends shots at a man who may be one of a handful of successful black men who can help. Just recently, Smith and his wife Jada openly boycotted the Academy Awards. Mainly because he wasn’t nominated for Best Actor; though if there was an Oscar for “Best Actor with a Shit Accent in a Movie You Probably Won’t See” then I’m sure he would have snagged that no doubt.


Now that’s how you snipe accurately.

Anyway, that being said, Will Smith and Lenny Henry are fighting the same exact fight.  They are both engaged in an ongoing battle for a more factual and authentic representation of the world we live in on screen and behind he scenes.

“Until writers and ­directors reflect what is happening they won’t represent us properly.”

That’s a quote from Henry in the polarizing interview, which sounds quite similar to this:

“There is no us and them…It’s we…..For me, it’s more about putting my hand up and reminding my community, the Hollywood community, that we have to lead. That diversity is America’s superpower. That’s what makes our country great.” – Will Smith

It’s way past the time for divisiveness; let’s just get jiggy with the idea that we all want the same things.

Art work credited to Michael White

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