Why I Feel Bad for Will Smith
Will Smith has always been one of my favorite celebrities. I interviewed and hung out with him several times over the course of my career. He was one of my first assignments. As a young intern, I covered the Live 8 concert in our mutual hometown of Philadelphia. I was incredibly nervous and he welcomed me with a warm embrace, putting me at ease immediately. I brought two of my best friends with me to the party he hosted and he was equally inviting to them. Every time I’m asked who the nicest celebrities are, he’s at the top of my list. Until last night, he remained there.
For those of you that aren’t aware, last night at the Oscars, comedian Chris Rock was presenting an awkward and made a crack about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” Will laughed. His wife did not.
Moments later, Will walked onto the stage and slapped a stunned Chris. Many thought it was a bit. Sadly, they were wrong. Will walked back to his seat and proceeded to yell not once, but twice, “Get my wife’s name oucha your f*cking mouth,” as rage overtook his face and the room fell quiet.
Not long after, Will won his first-ever Academy Award. It was predicted he’d win, a thought that was met with both approval and excitement. He’d been snubbed twice before and the Oscars has faced backlash for years for not recognizing Black actors. It should’ve been a momentous night. And it was. But for all the wrong reasons.
I, like much of the world (and all of Twitter), was in shock. I stayed up far too late and woke up equally early still upset about it. Not because I personally knew him, but because we all feel like we do. As 80’s and 90’s kids, he came into our living room. We bobbed our heads, as teens and twenty-something’s, to Men In Black. We sobbed our way through Pursuit of Happiness and delighted in his interview with Oprah, in which he declared if Jada wasn’t it, he was done. As parents, we appreciate his profanity-free raps. And three decades later, we can still recite the theme song from the show that made him famous.
He was likeable. Comfortable. Charming. Kind. And funny. Last night, that changed. Which is perhaps why it’s all so confusing. Kanye would’ve been in cuffs. But the Fresh Prince sat front row. Because Will is considered safe. And then he committed assault thirty minutes before winning and accepting the most coveted award in acting. And the audience gave him a standing ovation.
He was visibly shaken. Whether that was because of the altercation or the accolade is unclear. But he started his speech by saying, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” It was a reference to the role he played in King Richard, a biopic about the controversial coach and father of Venus and Serena Williams. Attendees is the room hooted and hollered in support.
He went on to apologize to the Academy and other nominees, but not Rock. He said he wants to be a “vessel of love” and that God is calling on him to love his people. He also said that to be in this business, you’re expected to take abuse.
To be fair, it wasn’t the first time Chris Rock made a disparaging remark about Will’s wife. In 2016, he scoffed at her boycotting the same show (for it’s lack of support of the Black community), saying she wasn’t even invited. He did so with a crude comment likening it to him not being invited into “Rihanna’s panties.”
Jada revealed last year that she suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes bald spots and hair loss, making the insult especially sensitive. It’s unclear whether Chris knew this. But, disease or not, it’s 2022. Why are we, men especially, still commenting on women’s appearances?
The Smiths have long been the target of media speculation and fodder about their marriage. Is it open or not? Did she cheat? Are they separated? With Will’s nomination and extensive round of press, there’s been another wave of attention. It’s got to be exhausting, humiliating and infuriating. Which is why all of this may have been justified, or at least understood, in Will’s outburst. But the assault set it over the edge.
If it had been a female presenter, Will would’ve been escorted out. Perhaps even arrested. But male on male violence should be taken just as seriously. The fact that they’re both Black perpetuates a dangerous and unjust stereotype.* And his selfish, impulsive and short-sided action further ignites and incenses others of all races, ages and genders. It shows our children that violence is sometimes the answer. That it’s tolerated if you’re powerful and, otherwise, widely respected. That the same rules don’t apply to everyone. Notions that are even more dangerous in these troubling times. We’ve made considerable progress over the last few years and it’s hard not to feel like it was all just blown up by our trusted friend.
It’s upsetting that what should have been a celebratory night was sullied. Other achievements and historical moments were overshadowed. He robbed so many people of their moment. It was the first time an openly queer actor won one of the four major acting awards. The first time a woman has won Best Director two years in a row. The first time three women have hosted and only the second and third WOC to hold that title. So many greats were memorialized. There were stunning performances and powerful speeches. And all anyone is talking about is the slap heard round the world. We’re all lesser for last night.
I originally published this article at 6am, the morning after. I hadn’t seen the coverage and was still angry. Since then, many new details have emerged. Ones that support my original stance. Friends that were there shared videos of Will and Jada laughing from their seats. The Academy came forward and said that they asked Will to leave and he refused. Photos were released of Will and Jada walking the Vanity Fair red carpet, all smiles. There’s footage of him, holding his Oscar dancing to his own hits like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” as a crowd surrounds him. Hardly the actions of a man who feels remorse.
But what I also see in those after photos is a man in pain. The glazed over expression in his eyes, the forced smile. Whether it’s from the gravity of his actions starting to settle in or something, perhaps, far darker that had been brewing and prompted him to walk up on that stage and put his hands on another human. I’m not condoning what he did. It was wrong. And he should be held accountable. I’m simply saying that for a man who’s spent 30 years championing others, creating positivity and putting kindness into the world, a man who was at the pinnacle of his career and about to accept the highest achievement in acting, something he’s been striving for and working towards, for him to snap moments before reveals feelings far deeper than defending his wife.
As someone who struggles with my own mental health, I know it’s more than that. And it speaks to a larger problem that plagues our entire society. We have a mental health epidemic in our country. One that does not discriminate. It crosses all classes and races. We feared Kanye’s presence because he puts his issues out there. But his onstage antics were tame in comparison. His weapons are his words, not his hand.
Some are pointing to the admission in his memoir of feeling powerless as a child when his father was abusive to his mother. He wrote that he felt like he couldn’t- and didn’t- defend her. Others reference his manhood being questioned when his wife allegedly stepped out on him during her “entanglement” with singer August Alsina. Both reasons for baggage. But a healthy person heals from their traumas. They put in the work. They don’t take innocents down for others’ sins.
Still, part of me feels sorry for Will. His mind got in his own way. And for once, he wasn’t able to override it. Unfortunately, his failure to do so affected so many others. And himself. Beyond immediate action from the Academy or backlash from his audience, he will forever be linked to his momentary lapse in judgement. His Oscar win will never be just that.
So whether he’s canceled or not or whether you even believe he should be, he will pay the price for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, with his public- and publicized- breakdown, he took down so many others with him. And, when it’s all said and done, the biggest award show in the world afforded no winners.
But I believe in second chances. I believe in redemption. And I hope he does too. I can only imagine what he’s going through right now. Not unwarranted. But human. He messed up and will forever bear the consequences. But it’s one (very bad) blip in 50 years of generosity and kindness. This is a teaching moment for all of us. Let us not throw away the lesson in favor of the lashing.
*I recognize and appreciate that this is from a white woman’s perspective and there are certain cultural nuances that I will never understand. For those, I point you to POC like Glo Atanmo, who is doing the work (particularly here and here) to help educate the rest of us (even though it’s not her responsibility).