Movies | July 4, 2021 4:30 pm

“Independence Day” Producer and Director Fought Studio to Cast Will Smith

The inside history of a blockbuster film

Will Smith
Will Smith accepting his award for Best Male Video during the 1999 MTV Music Video Awards.
Frank Micelotta/ImageDirect

It has, amazingly enough, been 25 years now since Independence Day hit movie theater screens across the globe. The film accomplished a host of things, including redefining the nature of a blockbuster and cementing Will Smith’s status as a charismatic leading man. Following Bad Boys, Independence Day elevated Smith to the highest tier of the film industry. The fact that he didn’t return for the film’s sequel was one reason that the film was nowhere nearly as successful as its predecessor.

But for all that Smith and Independence Day were closely interwoven, new reports suggest that he almost didn’t appear in the film. According to producer Dean Devlin and director Roland Emmerich, they had to fight with the studio in order to convince them to cast Smith in the film’s leading role.

This information came up over the course of Aaron Couch’s oral history of Independence Day at The Hollywood Reporter. “It was pretty clear it had to be Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum,” said Emmerich. “That was the combo we thought.” The studio, however, had other ideas.

“They said, ‘You cast a Black guy in this part, you’re going to kill foreign [box office],’” Devlin recalled. “Our argument was, ‘Well, the movie is about space aliens. It’s going to do fine foreign.’” Eventually, Devlin and Emmerich won the argument, cast Smith and went on to make the highest-grossing film of the year.

Unfortunately, the same argument made by the executives who balked at casting Smith is still in circulation. In a 2018 article at Vox, Alissa Wilkinson wrote about her hope that the success of Black Panther would “crush a pernicious Hollywood myth: that ‘black films don’t travel.’” It’s a reminder that progress can sometimes take longer than expected.