Will Smith Once Said ‘I’m the Jackie Robinson of Saving the World’

Jackie Robinson paved the way for integration in sports. No. 42 for the Dodgers, Robinson endured racist abuse as the first Black player in Major League Baseball. In Hollywood, Will Smith broke some barriers too, and he always had a way with words. That’s why he was a successful rapper before becoming a blockbuster movie star, when he invoked Robinson’s name. 

Will Smith rapping
Will Smith | Ian Gavan/Getty Images for Paramount Pictures

Smith spoke with reporters at the press junket for Independence Day in 1996. It was there that he called himself “the Jackie Robinson of saving the world.”

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In 1996, Smith was 27. He was nearly a decade into his showbiz career, having released the first Fresh Prince album in 1987. His TV show, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had just ended in May. Smith had broken into movies with indies like Where the Day Takes You and Six Degrees of Separation, the comedy Made In America, and action movie Bad Boys.

Will Smith with five rotweilers in 1996
Will Smith | Charles W. Bush/The LIFE Images Collection via Getty Images

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Independence Day was Smith’s first Fourth of July weekend movie. It became a tradition with Men in Black and even Wild Wild West. Smith saved the world from aliens in Independence Day and three Men in Black movies, and from robots in I, Robot. But, in 1996, it was a first. 

Will Smith on the milestone of ‘Independence Day’

Smith would become well-known for saving the world, but in 1996 that was still the territory of Arnold Schwarzenegger and other sci-fi movies. 

Independence Day cast at the premiere
L- R: Vivica Fox, Jeff Goldblum, Bill Pullman, Will Smith, Harry Connick Jr., director Roland Emmerich and Margaret Colin | Jeff Haynes/AFP via Getty Images

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Independence Day is one of those projects that comes along once in a career,” Smith said. “It has everything. You laugh, you cry, it has action. It’s just an incredible ensemble cast. It’s just everything that you could ever want from a movie. Actually, I think that I’m probably the first Black guy that ever saved the world. I feel like the Jackie Robinson of saving the world.”

The Jackie Robinson of movies

Keep in mind, Smith delivered the Jackie Robinson line with his trademark tongue-in-cheek tone and wink. He wasn’t comparing his acting career to the real-world strides Robinson made. However, Smith would fulfill the promise Independence Day suggested in the rest of his career.

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I feel that I’m talented and I feel like there are a lot of people that are talented. Hollywood recognizes green so if you can put asses in the seats, they’ll put you in the movies. I hope my performance. I think humans naturally gravitate towards the unknown. Things that we don’t understand excite us, so I think that’s what it is about science fiction because you can actually look and see the stars. You can see the planets. You get a telescope, you can look and you can see but you can’t get close enough to know what’s there. Dean Devlin and Roland Emmerich have done an incredible job of allowing us to glimpse into the what if. It’s just so real. The thing with people in Los Angeles, the news clip, ‘Please don’t fire your guns.’ That’s exactly how it would be. 

Will Smith, Independence Day press junket, 1996