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How Will Smith sees Hollywood's diversity problem: 'It is our fight, more than their responsibility'

Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in 'Concussion,' a film about one neuropathologist's fight against the NFL.
Will Smith stars as Dr. Bennet Omalu in 'Concussion,' a film about one neuropathologist's fight against the NFL.
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In his new movie, "Concussion," Will Smith plays Dr. Bennet Omalu, the forensic pathologist who discovered that some former NFL players suffered from a degenerative brain disease known as chronic traumatic encephalopathy (a.k.a. CTE). His research into the brain tissue of deceased players led him to conclude that CTE was brought on by repeated head trauma endured during their football careers.

Will Smith tells The Frame that he was "terrified" to take on the role of Dr. Omalu.

"I did not want to be the guy that said football is dangerous," he said. 

Still, Smith also felt "deeply impelled, as a parent, to be a part of starting this conversation." His son played football.

Smith also shares his take on why Hollywood struggles with racial inequality and how to promote diversity in the entertainment business. Plus, he makes his case for why he — not Idris Elba — should play Obama one day.

Read more below.

Video: 'Concussion' trailer


I know you spent some time with Dr. Bennet Omalu in his work place, which is working with the dead and doing autopsies.

Yes, it’s a morgue, an autopsy room. It’s quite the experience.

So what does being with the dead teach you about the living, and about Dr. Omalu?

What was really great was to watch [Dr. Omalu] prepare. A huge part of who he is, is defined by his work. He’s a deeply spiritual man. He talks to the body, or the spirit of the person. He’s playing music, and he sees himself as the threshold guardian between this world and the next. And he sees himself as ushering this soul to the other side. It was a really powerful insight into the spirituality of the man.

And he believes the bodies can tell him a story — that there is a narrative buried somewhere within the body.

Yes. So a lot of the cases that he’s performing are criminal. What Bennet does, and what is his superpower, is he has an almost savant-level skill of figuring out what happened. That’s his real claim to fame. Being able to connect with something and put together what happened to this person.

Whenever you make a movie, you probably want the film to start a conversation. Sometimes you can’t forecast what that conversation will be. Recently, a college football analyst said, "The war on football is real . . . Concussion alarmists are loving it, the liberal media is loving it." Did you imagine that this movie would be at the center of this conversation, and is that a good thing?

I’m a football fan, so I’ve been following it for years. It seems really obvious once you get into it that if you bang your head thousands of times, there’s a possibility that you could damage your brain. Yet, when we watch the game we are overtaken and intoxicated by the beauty. So for me, as a parent of a child who played football, the conversation is an absolute necessity. Because I had no idea. I knew if I didn’t know — if I was not concerned in the least — there are other parents who don’t know. So I was deeply impelled, as a parent, to be a part of starting this conversation.

Did making this movie change your perspective on the NFL or youth football?

Absolutely. First off, for me it’s not about the NFL. For me it’s not even really about football as much as it is about evolution and the truth. Dr. Omalu has a very powerful belief as a scientific and spiritual man that the truth moves us forward. He had a really hard time getting his head around how not knowing was better than knowing. So, more than anything, I believe that that’s what this film is about, and that’s what the hope of the filmmakers is. That at a minimum, people will open up to knowing.

You’ve said that professionally, you’re sometimes motivated by the things you find a little scary. Was that the case in this film? And if so, what were you fearful of?

Yeah, I was terrified with this one. When I first read the screenplay, it was really beautiful, very well written. But I just did not want to be the guy that said football was dangerous.

Why not? Were you afraid of what football players would say to you?

There’s some stuff that people just don’t want to hear. You know? And a big part of my career has been based on comedy. There is nothing more that people want to hear than a joke. So I’m used to giving people exactly what they want the way that they want it. This type of film is more of an “inconvenient truth.” It was a different place for me. And because I love the game, and my son played, there was also a part of me that seemed like it could have been viewed as hypocritical.

This morning you were nominated for a Golden Globe Award, as was Idris Elba. We’ve been talking a lot on our show about diversity or a lack thereof in Hollywood. When you look at your career and Hollywood, what are the things you worry about? What are the things you find encouraging? And where are you pessimistic?

I’ll answer your last question first. I’m not pessimistic anywhere. I believe in the power of the human spirit. I believe Hollywood, more than any other group of people probably other than the United Nations, are deeply forward-focused.

But in terms of the people they put on screen and hire, they’re not.

Well, we have to look at the “they.” I am responsible for what I put on screen. I’ve worked hard, I’ve made allies. And I can make anything I want. I believe that that power exists for as many people as are willing to work and to seize the power. The executives in Hollywood are 90 percent white and male. So most of the things that are going to be made will appeal to white males. If you come to my house, most of the people who work in my house are people of color. You know? If you come to my house, you would see a representation of my family.

So I will never blame someone for creating and doing and building environments that suit them. Right? So I take the responsibility upon myself and upon my community of filmmakers and creative people to make those allies and it is our fight, I believe, more than their responsibility.

The problem of course is that there aren’t enough Will Smiths in the world. But there are not enough people in authority who have the power that you do to make movies and to say “yes” to things. Spike Lee was on our show not that long ago. He said, until people of color are making the greenlight decisions, things won’t change. Do you buy that?

So, I believe firmly in an integrated society where we all work together and we build and create things that are good for all of us.

I believe that people — when their survival is in question — they embrace their reptile mind and their reptile mind is not inclusive. Their reptile mind is not loving so when you put someone in a position where their job and family is in question, it's a very difficult thing to ask them to grow and to expand and to be loving.

I don't blame people for those situations. What I do is I separate fault from responsibility. It might be white people’s fault that blacks are in the position we’re in in Hollywood. But it is our responsibility to make the change. I don’t think it is their responsibility to make the change, no matter how much it might be their fault.

What is your next project as a producer, and are you going to put your words into action? Will you make sure the movies you make represent that vision?

Yeah. I think the next project I’m producing is “Bad Boys III.” As an individual, as a family, as a company, we make it a point to employ and to train people of color to successfully integrate and wield power in this world of Hollywood.

You’ve played Muhammad Ali, you’ve played Dr. Bennet Omalu. When are you going to play President Obama?

I don’t know — he’s got to write the end of the story.

As soon as you have a third act?

Yeah, soon as he finishes the third act! We talked about that — me and the president — probably about six months ago.

I thought he wanted Idris Elba to play him.

He may have switched out. Idris has got that British thing. He sounds so intelligent. I’ll have to work on my Obama accent and I’ll show him I can do it better than Idris.

"Concussion" premieres in theaters around the country on December 25.  

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