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Is ''Wild Wild West'' racist?

Will Smith, Kenneth Branagh, and Barry Sonnenfeld get politically incorrect

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Will Smith, Wild Wild West
Murray Close

Audiences expecting a bit of harmless summer fluff from ”Wild Wild West” are in for a shock. Chockful of wisecracks that take aim at African Americans and the physically challenged, the movie tosses political correctness out the window. ”We went out on a limb with a couple of these scenes,” Will Smith tells EW Online. ”I sure hope people think this is funny, because this is one of those setups that can either be hilarious or it can be something people will hate for the rest of their lives.”

One scene that might fall into the latter category features Smith’s character, James T. West, swapping double entendres with the evil Dr. Arliss Loveless, played by Kenneth Branagh. Sly asides about ”a coon’s age,” ”half a man,” and ”a monkey’s uncle” are tossed around with abandon, and Branagh admits to having had some reservations about the material: ”I asked Will, ‘Is this a bit much?’ And he said, ‘Nah, it’s going to work.’ So we went for it. It’s a little edgy, but it’s an interesting texture in a movie like this.”

Though the original version of the script was color-blind, Smith urged director Barry Sonnenfeld to make race an issue. ”I said to Barry, ‘Uh, did you notice that I’m a black dude, and Robert Conrad isn’t?”’ recalls Smith. ”He said, ‘Oh, come on, no one knows you’re black!”’ Still, Sonnenfeld embraced the idea. ”It’s fun for me to be politically incorrect,” says the ”Men in Black” director. ”I had to do it because life in America is so boring we have to do something to spice it up a bit.”

Still, there was a limit to how much spice Sonnenfeld and Smith felt comfortable adding to the mix. In one scene, Smith faces down a lynch mob. Though the script called for the actor to joke with the crowd while a noose hangs around his neck, the scene was shot with him just standing next to the killer rope. ”That was our way of saying we can’t take this too far,” says Sonnenfeld. ”There were lynchings, and it’s not funny. You’re always walking this line between comedy and one too many racist jokes. But Will makes it all somehow accessible and okay.” Smith, for his part, is letting audiences decide: ”We’ll see on Big Willie Weekend what people think.”