Fragmenting the Black Male Body: Will Smith, Cinema, Clothing and Desire

by Sarah Gilligan


This article examines the ways in which the representation of Will Smith in I am Legend and I, Robot constructs postcolonial performative visual narratives that both follow and disrupt existing discourses of sexualized black masculinity within visual culture. Through comparative analysis with examples drawn from photography, I will argue that Smith’s representation enables the black body to be rendered as fashionable and aspirational, rather than simply objectified via sexualized visual discourses.

Building on existing critical work on costume, identity and cinema (Bruzzi, Church Gibson, Gilligan), the article forms part of Sarah Gilligan’s wider research project, that responds to calls for further interdisciplinary work exploring the “new nexus” of film, fashion, and consumption that has emerged as cinema ever increasingly “bleeds across” different media. Despite Smith’s popularity with audiences, the intersection of Smith, black masculinity, and fashion does not appear to have been the subject of extended academic attention. In starting to readdress this absence, Gilligan argues that whilst Smith’s body initially appears to be fetishized, his representation is characterized by performance and fragmentation that renders the body and blackness a construction, rather than a naturalized/essentialist object of desire. Mythic phallic power and desire is displaced onto clothes and accessories that function to construct Smith’s on-screen personas as a new male hero with crossover appeal in order to maximize his celebrity commodity status. Although such commodification is offered up as aspirational, it is potentially highly problematic in the ways that it attempts to further render Smith’s blackness “safe” for audiences.

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