Actor Will Smith portrays controversial World War II hero and diplomat Richard Phillips in an upcoming movie about the infamous Maersk Alabama hijacking that held a crew of Americans captive at sea for five months.
Smith’s character, Phillips, was once a neighbor of mine in the Paradise community of Anacostia, in Washington, D.C. (Although I no longer know him, he was still a neighbor who was good at growing fruits, having a sparkling smile and doing homework by flashlight when I was growing up in the area.) The character of Phillips was developed over the course of years by the Coen brothers, who had the rights to the events, and working closely with them was Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
After Phillips was freed by pirates, he also had a film titled “Captain Phillips” with Tom Hanks in the lead role produced by Steven Spielberg, which was nominated for six Academy Awards and went on to win three.
Now comes the also-true (kind of) story of “King Richard,” with the release of the new movie from Sony Pictures.
And although there has been a lot of negative attention surrounding this, on one level, it feels like yet another path that Smith has been trying to take all his adult life. In 1976, he was a lead in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” but soon after the show ended Smith moved on to movies (“The Wild Wild West,” “Hook,” “I, Robot,” “Independence Day,” “Ali,” “Men in Black” and so on) and into civil and social work.
The idea that there was something special about this decision seemed almost facetious to many until Smith seemed to come back into his own as a dramatic leading man in “The Pursuit of Happyness” and “After Earth,” two films about a man making a choice that was a throwback to his life before.
In 2016, he turned into a talking bear in “Collateral Beauty” (as a fictional character), so when “King Richard” comes along, the heart and soul of this is obviously his life, right?
That is kind of what is happening here, too. It’s not that he has suddenly turned into this dark, brooding character, it’s just that we can now look back and see the genesis. Smith has said he hopes the movie is a “first step” to “directing another epic biopic” and follows in the tradition of those that are made of real people and things.
But even without a director, the fact that Smith is working on the project – and particularly his character of Phillips – is a kind of coming full circle moment for Smith, because it reminds us what he really wanted to do and did as a child and teenager in the ’80s.
And there are so many other differences between “King Richard” and “Captain Phillips,” including setting the story in the early part of World War II, the return of Phillips to the U.S. after the pirate hijacking, the tone of the film, how it was made (by the Coens, no less) and even the fact that it was directed by Michael Mitnick.
So it will be interesting to see if “King Richard” ends up on anybody’s best list of the year’s best films or only gets a “what was that?” reception at best.
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