So, the big question has to be: did Will Smith deserve an Oscar nomination for his role as a coroner in Concussion***? And I’m going to say Yes, probably, although I would hesitate to blame racism for his being overlooked.
It’s by no means a cert, a role like this but I do think he deserved it more than or as much as Matt Damon and Eddie Redmayne.
Smith is extremely watchable as Dr Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian forensic pathologist who – true story – discovered abnormalities in the brain of deceased gridiron star Mike Wheeler in Pittsburgh.
His determined investigations push further and uncover further traumas in Steelers players who suffer from depression and memory loss. It all leads Bennett to publish a paper revealing the dangers of American football that puts lives at peril.
Naturally, the powerful NFL don’t want this info out there, so we end up with a shady corporate Goliath v earnest immigrant David story, one that I must say had me reasonably gripped. Director Peter Landesman, a former journalist who made the JFK assassination reconstruction drama Parkland in 2013, does a good job of flipping the question to make it about America – how American is it to point the finger of blame at the most American of institutions?
I like a sports movie, and I like a shady conspiracy cover up/corporate malfeasance drama very much and this has all of that, with Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin lending their liberal heft to the doctor’s struggle. Less edifying is the somewhat sappy storyline of Bennett’s love for another African arrival, a nurse played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw whose main task is to encourage her man with folksy back-home wisdom and do lots of standing by sinks and hobs and engage in general tidying up.
So it’s the Ibsen style public health expose that shines through (wasn’t Will Smith in Enemy of the State rather than An Enemy of the People?) and it does so very well.
Why didn’t he get a nomination? Perhaps it’s because no-one really liked the hard truth of what his character is saying. The film, which also had a lukewarm reception in America, does hint at unpalatable scientific proof just as the nation built up to the frenzied hype of Super Bowl weekend. As Brook’s character says: “The NFL owns a day of the week, the one that used be reserved for the Church. They’re big.” And Concussion’s undeserved shunt to the touchlines of Oscar season might be another of those political hush-ups, much like what happened to Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty – Hollywood didn’t want you to see these movies, even if it’s quite happy it made them.
For me, it’s hardly a shock that Gridiron is dangerous stuff, but, if Coldplay on the half-time bill hadn’t already done it, Will Smith and his noble Bennett Omalu have now put me off the spectacle for life.