Smith performs, resists, and usurps this character in order to effect certain cultural interventions and to further the cause of his public star identity. Consistently over the last decade he has been the highest ranking black star on annual lists of power figures in Hollywood.
Even more than this, the meaning of his star status has historical and cultural implications that have not been fully examined. The types of roles he has accepted and in which audiences are willing to accept him savior of mankind, the last man on earth have done interesting cultural work in terms of redefining concepts of black identity in general and of black masculinity specifically.
Based on a series of actual incidents reported in The New York Times in , the story of the film and the play details the encounter of a New York power couple with a young black man who cons and charms his way into their lives for an evening by impersonating the fictional son of Sidney Poitier.
They are burst in upon by the doorman and a young black man Will Smith who is bleeding from a knife wound to his side. It turns out that the intruder is a Harvard classmate of their children.
They administer first aid, and he begins to talk. He persuades them to stay in, and he will prepare a meal. This he does and in the process dazzles them with his conversation.
He discourses on The Catcher in the Rye and the death of the imagination. It is a magical evening, and the deal is sealed. Subsequently, they discover that Paul Poitier is not who he claims to be and that several of their friends have had similar experiences with him.
The path of their investigation into the real identity of this strange young man leads them to a friend of their children named Trent Anthony Michael Hall , a student at M. He admits to befriending this Paul and sharing his knowledge of their lives with him.
Paul also seems to have had an effect on Smith as there are distinct parallels between their narratives. Indeed it could be said that Smith learns valuable lessons about how to succeed in the mainstream from the character he portrays, and then he surpasses him.
Paul insinuates himself into the white and privileged world of the Kittredges through canny and deliberate strategies to overcome the two salient aspects of his identity that might otherwise prove to be barriers: He does so through a process of minimizing his race and sexuality while at the same time subverting conventional notions of those identities.
Beneath its self-presentation as a satiric comedy of manners lie cogent interrogations of notions about race and class, the history of blacks in America, the limits of assimilation, the representations of black gay men, the nature of African American and Hollywood homophobia, and the fluidity of racial identity. His performance, in fact, is a part of a larger pattern within the film in which Paul Poitier is marginalized, patronized, and distorted.
One critic, Scott Poulson-Bryant, has observed that Six Degrees of Separation is the history of America in two hours 96 , and he is right. More specifically, it is an allegory of the history of blacks in America. Certain scenes involving Paul and his interactions and confrontations with the white characters in the film register a number of historical, social, and racial points. It is ironic that Paul, who is ambivalent about a racial identity, should actually carry so much black signification.
Three scenes are essential to this reading. After Trent picks up Paul and brings him back to his apartment near M. Trent, on the other hand, has another agenda: They come to an agreement. For each piece of information Trent gives Paul, Paul will remove an article of clothing. This exchange also constitutes a reenactment of the economic transaction of slavery. A privileged white male bids for the possession of the body of a black man.
One crucial difference, of course, is that the black man here is actually an agent in the negotiation and stands to gain, in this case the knowledge that will allow him the social mobility he desires.
Paul enjoys a certain empowerment in this moment: However, this kind of power can only be virtual. It cannot be forgotten that Trent, though sexually marginalized himself, nonetheless still operates from the advantaged position because of his race, gender, and class.
By teaching Paul the details of the lives of his parents and their circle, he is teaching him the codes and values of a supposedly superior civilization. Trent is indoctrinating Paul, annexing or colonizing his mind. Guare makes a joke about this process when he has the South African millionaire joke about the sums of money his government is putting into the education of blacks in his country. Here he expresses his wish for a black identity not informed with the wounds of history and racial oppression.
His desire is for an autonomous identity which in American society is synonymous with whiteness. The three young men with whom he chooses to have sexual encounters are all white, and certainly the choice of object cathexis, on some level, is a reflection of identity.
In his preference for young white men, he is expressing a desire to become one with them, or even to become them. At least, he seeks validation from them. It must be taken into account that none of these relationships involves love, but instead some variety or degree of exploitation. These men may use Paul for sex, money, or information, but he also uses them in his own way. They support him in his quest — to acquire and affirm his simulation of a white identity.
The sex with the hustler thus validates his successfully performed identity. Sexuality is only one means of social and identity mobility. Another is through family connections. One can gain entry to privilege by sleeping with it, or one may simply be born into it. Paul makes use of both methods. His project with Flan and Ouisa is to seduce them, not as lovers, but as parents.
He sets out to rewrite history and biology so as to become their son, thus to claim their status, wealth, and cultural legacy.
It is significant that he devises the fiction of a famous black parent in order to gain access to the desired white parents. Certainly, there is a family resemblance between Flan and Paul in terms of their gifts for the con. On a different level, Paul does the same. It is during this scene that Paul usurps the position of the actual Kittredge children, signally in the moment when Ouisa disconnects her daughter on the other line in order to concentrate on Paul.
At the final dinner party during which she comprehends and defends the true meaning of her encounter with Paul, she pronounces the following truth about his dream: Everything we are in the world, this paltry thing — our life — he wanted it. He stabbed himself to get in here. Alas, this value can scarcely be corroborated. In the end, what Paul aspires to is not worth his effort and imagination.
His goal of social and racial transcendence, though genuinely and passionately pursued, remains nothing more than a dream. What is this overstuffed red apartment but a metaphor for a materialistic, capitalist American society? The goal of his journey is to gain admittance to this American Dream; he wants to see for himself what it is he has been educated to covet. It is significant that in order to gain entry Paul has to wound himself, the wound being a metaphor for the psychic violence required for social acceptance.
His new fictionalized identity, one that has been shaped for this specific audience, is one that decentralizes or deracializes blackness. In a previously quoted speech, Paul characterizes his non-racist blackness as luck and then claims that luck is what one creates. Clearly he has constructed this fictional identity in order to seize the opportunity that he orchestrates.
In his next speech, Paul discusses how his father, Sidney Poitier, has no real identity because he is an actor: Critic David Roman makes the observation that this concept of role-playing as identity is the essence of the black American experience, identity as a fulfillment of those social roles that have been conceptualized and authorized by the white power structure Certainly during the course of the evening described in the film, Paul functions in a number of these prescribed social roles that historically have been designated for black people: Of course, a side of Paul is revealed, his secret sexuality.
Guare has said in interviews at the time of the original release of the film that he insisted this scene remain in the film because he wanted the Kittredges to face the Other, to have it brought right into their home for a direct confrontation Milvy. In this way Guare allows not only Paul to be exposed, but also the seemingly blameless couple.
Their actions disclose the inauthenticity of limousine liberalism. Notice how this couple will embrace this young black man only when they find out he is the son of a celebrity. In the act of admitting Paul they are committing a subtle act of racism. He is admitted to their home because his embodiment of a benign intersection of race and class, or its subsidiary, celebrity, confers upon him the status of an honorary white person. How appropriate that their guest that night is from South Africa whose presence underscores this racial dynamic.
Notice also that they evict Paul in a veritable act of disenfranchisement not because he is black, which seems to be acceptable by itself. What they cannot abide is his association with a transgressive sexuality. It is almost as if this doubleness or confluence of difference is too much for them to bear. Their action also interestingly suggests that their homophobia resides in a place much deeper in their liberal hearts than racism.
Paul achieves his goal of assimilation into the mainstream symbolized by his penetration of the Kittredge home through a manipulation of how he is perceived. He circumvents possible resistances to his race by denying it and at the same time transcending it. During his early interactions with Flan and Ouisa, Paul makes a conscious effort to downplay his racial difference. Claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier, he fabricates stories about his past that serve three functions: In the stories Paul tells and in his performance for the Kittredges and their guest, there is a reference to a deeper past than his personal one; he actually reproduces African American history in such a way that further ingratiates him to his audience.
In cooking the meal and providing the entertainment through his soliloquy about Salinger and the death of the imagination, he references the history of slavery as well as the servant and entertainment roles black actors occupied in American film history. He intentionally invokes the racist stereotypes of the past. These subservient images of black people cater to white audiences who may feel comforted and safe with these conventional stereotypes in that they reaffirm their sense of a social hierarchy as well as their own positions of privilege and superiority within it.
Poitier is a symbol of the civil rights movement, and his film career broke racial barriers not only in Hollywood but in the world. By selecting Poitier, Paul moves his image from associations with slavery in the 19th century to the great social transformations of the 20th century. By accepting the son of this iconic actor who embodies racial good will, the Kittredges can feel good about themselves and their sense of their decency and fairness.
In describing his fictional childhood as the child of an international celebrity, Paul moves his image from slavery to the civil rights movement and finally into a postracial position, one that transcends the historical experiences of black people with racism and oppression. When he says that growing up in Switzerland he never felt black, he reassures the couple that he will not make an issue of race or confront them about their racial attitudes.
Thus they are free to embrace him.