"Sometimes I do think it's time for something different. Like maybe a comedy," said the young star, in town to talk about The Hate U Give, in which he plays the victim of a police shooting.
"But in a way, this movie is different. Detroit, I found, was really hard for people take, and in this case, there's more hope in the story," Smith said. "There is a really hopeful message, a strong message of black pride that you get. And personally, I really liked the portrayal in the movie of a strong black man at the head of the household. That moved me," Smith said.
The Hate U Give (the title is taken from a Tupac Shakur lyric) is based on the Angie Thomas book, and tells of a teen girl (Amandla Stenberg) who witnesses a police shooting (Smith plays the victim), a situation she endures and survives with the help of a protective father (Russell Hornsby).
Smith earned an audition based in part on his work in Kathryn Bigelow's Detroit as a man who survives the city's 1967 riots. He was called upon to improvise crucial scenes with director George Tillman Jr. He hadn't read Thomas' book, and decided not to before he arrived on set.
"I didn't want to give myself too much information about Khalil. I didn't want to be thinking of all that, instead of being in the moment," he said. "But Amandla, she was just so into that book, like every day reading it again, so I said, 'Let my see just a little of that book,' and after that, I was hooked."
Smith has another personal connection to the movie — he started out as a musician (he once toured Philadelphia with an Atlanta gospel group as a young teen) and was a big fan of Shakur's, whose music is an important theme in the movie.
"He had a real strong positive message, and we pick up on that in the film. That the hate you put on little children has negative repercussions. His words shifted the culture, and I think had he lived, he would have shifted it even more," Smith said.
It falls to movies like The Hate U Give to carry on that work, he said.