With Will Smith on the red carpet in Edina

“This is everything I [bleeping] hate about journalism,” a photographer for the Pioneer Press said as we walked the freezing parking lot of Southdale, where some 300 freezing fans of actor Will Smith waited in the freezing night for the star to appear on a red carpet and promote his new film, Seven Pounds. As KDWB’s Dave Ryan bleated on the microphone, cops referred us to other cops who knew nothing who referred us to still other cops who finally directed us to a media table where fashionable young women handed out passes on lanyards. Then we waited, for nearly two hours. Did I mention it was freezing?

There is something about journalism, as my colleague referred to, when it succumbs to the hype machine of mass entertainment that brings out the worst in everyone. The flank of media lining the red carpet were little better than the teenage girls who leaned over the metal railings with signs saying “All I Want is Will.” (All I wanted was to put hats on their head and button up their coats. Who let these kids out of the house?) Freelance photographers greeted one another as old friends then jostled each other for the best shot when Smith finally arrived. The alt-weekly reporter beside me rehearsed a couple of tired movie-critic questions to ask Smith if he stopped long enough in front of her, ultimately deciding on “Are you anything like the character you play?” Which might be interesting only if he played a serial killer. Or a white dude. The scene was a spectacle because it was designed to look like and feel like one, and perhaps the only boring way to cover such an illusion is to take it seriously.

Smith rolled up about an hour later than advertised and was as gracious as advertised, mass-hugging his fans, taking their tiny digital cameras and holding it out to snap a photo of himself with them and answering each media members’ questions with enthusiasm. He donated 300 dinners to Second Harvest Heartland, accepted a Vikings jersey, then delivered a heartfelt lecture about needing to help one another. “We’re always talking about our rights, but with rights comes responsiblity,” he told the crowd, who scarcely stopped screaming to listen. “We don’t have communism, we don’t have a dictatorship–we need to look out for each other.” In interviews, he said that after the election of Barack Obama he was inspired to eschew the usual Los Angeles press conferences and head out into the American heartland to talk about this responsibility as well as give something back himself. It’s a remarkable thing for America’s most bankable movie star to do, and came across as less didactic and patronizing coming from a guy best known for shooting aliens than if Sean Penn had said it. Still, most people in the crowd probably noticed this: that Smith is more handsome in person than onscreen, the dude’s got good taste (easily the best-dressed man in the lot with his grey newsboy cap and slim navy car coat), and he wields his power well. Even if it’s the kind of power that compels to do such ridiculous things as line up like cattle in a mall parking lot in 10-degree weather because everyone else is.