Dr Will and Mr Smith: how a slap devastated the career of the perfect star

The actor’s recently published memoirs offer clues to understand the confrontation with Chris Rock that has spurred his departure from the Academy

Will Smith and Chris Rock
Chris Rock and Will Smith, in 2005.Lee Celano (WireImage)

It was the best of his nights and the worst of his nights. Only 40 minutes separated the two moments: when Will Smith slapped the comedian Chris Rock for joking about his wife Jade Pinkett Smith’s alopecia, and when the actor gave the disconcerting acceptance speech for his first Oscar. Will’s impulsive gesture has since been analyzed through every possible lens. This Friday, it led him to announce his resignation from the Academy, just five days after his victory for his role as Venus and Serena William’s father in King Richard.

“The list of those I have hurt is long and includes Chris, his family, many of my dear friends and loved ones, all those in attendance, and global audiences at home. I betrayed the trust of the Academy. I deprived other nominees and winners of their opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated for their extraordinary work,” Smith wrote in a press release. The performer chose to take the initiative, which means that he will not be able to vote on the Oscar awards, but he can still win them. He has said that he will accept any disciplinary measures. David Ruben, president of the governing body for the most famous film accolades in the world, announced that the sanctioning process continues. The Academy will announce Smith’s punishment on April 18.

For the audience members seated in the Dolby Theater that night, those 40 minutes felt like an eternity (with commercial breaks). Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry and Bradley Cooper approached Smith to comfort him and give him advice, while Smith’s publicist, who may or may not have been asked to leave the gala, briskly came and went. The Los Angeles police made known that they were prepared to arrest Will Smith. But, as the show’s producer Will Packer told ABC, Chris Rock’s aversion to escalating the conflict prevented that.

Smith initially celebrated his win by attending the afterparty, but he found himself waking with a hangover from his on-stage aggression. He first apologized in a brief, somber text on Instagram. And he ended the week with a communique that could win an Oscar for the year’s best mea culpa. Now, Smith, famous for his talkativeness, continues without speaking.

In the meantime, the 53-year-old’s autobiography Will (Zenith), published last autumn, offers answers to many of the questions that remain in the air. The book offers glimpses that can help us understand the tragedy of a man who has spent his whole life focused on becoming “the best movie star in the world,” until those fatal moments transmitted to 16.6 million viewers in the United States alone. (The audience was 58% greater than last year’s.) The memoir, written alongside self-help guru Mark Mason, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, holds clues to explaining the inexplicable: what made Smith lose control and respond to a bad-taste joke with violence?

For Manson, the key lies in the term “coward,” which appears 17 times in the book. (The combination of the terms “Chris” and “Rock” do not appear in the text, although the comedian appeared in an episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Smith’s first television hit, and a number of photos over the years show the two together at awards shows and premieres.)

“I’ve always thought of myself as a coward,” the first chapter begins. “Most of my memories of my childhood involve me being afraid in some way: afraid of other kids, afraid of being hurt or embarrassed, afraid of being seen as weak. But mostly, I was afraid of my father,” the actor narrates, before recounting an episode that stands out to the book’s reviewers. The nine-year-old narrator watches his dad, his “hero,” punch his mother so hard that she collapses and spits blood. “That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am today. … What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith,’ the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction, a carefully crafted and honed character, designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward,” he adds.

That fear of not being enough, Smith explains in the book, has led him to become obsessed with the approval of others: his family, the kids in his neighborhood, his fans and, above all, his spouse, who he repeatedly emphasizes that he idolizes. The book recounts the advice that Charlie Mack, one of Smith’s close friends and his first bodyguard, gave Smith early in his career, when much of the rap world mocked him for being “corny”: “Jus’ punch the muthafucka in the face! He won’t say that shit next time.” “I started doing exactly that: If somebody talked shit, I punched them in the face (and then jumped behind Charlie),” the actor remembers.

Written with conversational candor, Will is a tell-all. And Smith does his best to recall everything, from his run-ins with the IRS to his 14 ayahuasca ceremonies to his reflections about the art of making both “Blacks and whites” laugh. “My Black friends preferred their jokes more real and raw and demanded a gritty slice of truth at the core of the comedy. … They loved it when somebody got what was coming to them, karmic justice, even if the somebody was them. As Black people, we love laughing at ourselves. When we can joke about something, our pains, our problems, our tragedies. it makes them just a little bit more bearable.”

But above all, Smith paints himself as a vulnerable person, always learning, who narrates his achievements with the incredulity of a poor guy from Philly. He first conquered the rap world alongside Jazzy Jeff, then found his success on television screens with The Fresh Prince of Bel Air. He went on to win the public’s admiration with films like Independence Day and Wild Wild West, and then the approval of critics and colleagues, who had nominated him for Oscars twice before, for Ali (the 2001 story of the legendary fighter) and The Pursuit of Happyness (2006), which he starred in alongside Jaden, the second of his three children.

The actor was the second child of ice salesman Will Smith and Carolyn Elaine Bright, a college graduate who jumped from one job to another without much luck. Last week, Bright declared on a local television station that Sunday’s incident was “the first time” that she saw her son “do something like that.” The Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme song isn’t true of Smith: he wasn’t born and raised in West Philadelphia, and he didn’t get into trouble in his neighborhood. In reality, he attended a Catholic school with strict rules. And he had a difficult childhood. The actor’s father hit his wife and three children. “Most of the times I got hit during my childhood, I didn’t think I’d earned it, it felt like an injustice. I wasn’t the kind of kid you needed to spank,” he writes. When he was 13, his mother decided she had had enough. She went to work one day and never returned. Smith moved in with his grandmother Gigi, one of the main influences in his acting career. She took him to church on Sundays.

Despite the violence, Smith maintained a relationship with his father, who he called Daddy. One day in July 1996, Will Smith Senior awoke his son in the early morning with a telephone call to celebrate the box office success of Independence Day, the film that made Smith an action star. “Independence Day represented a significant victory for him,” he remembers. “My father was violent, but he was also at every game, play and recital. He was an alcoholic, but he was sober at every premiere of every one of my movies,” he adds. A few pages later, Smith adds that when he cared for his father, elderly and confined to a wheelchair, he thought of killing him as vengeance for the aggressions against his mother. He didn’t do it, of course, and he spoke to his dying father on a video call from the set of the film Bright (2017).

Amidst Will’s self-aggrandizement, Smith’s retellings of his achievements are tinged with a charming mix of incredulity and immodesty. He recalls the decade after the release of Independence Day as a time when he brought in “more than $8,000,000,000 in global box office,” as if hanging a medal on each zero. Like his character in Six Degrees of Separation, a con man who passes himself off as the son of Sidney Poitier and tricks a high-society New Yorker (Stockard Channing), Smith describes his key to success: like a good politician, always be campaigning. The actor discovered that box-office earnings in any given country could easily jump from $10 or $15 million to $25 million if he made an effort to appear on television, take photos with fans and sign endless autographs (he cites Tom Cruise as his model). “The movie companies were putting up north of $150,000,000 to plaster the movie posters in every country in the world,” he writes. “In my mind, I was never promoting a movie, I was using their $150,000,000 to promote me.”

Long before making it in the business, Smith had another epiphany. He describes knowing at five years old that he wanted to be a family man. As a teenager, he didn’t dream about winning over lots of women or beating sexual records. “My fantasies always involved one woman. I wanted to ravish her with my complete, undivided devotion and affection. I wanted to be the best man she’s ever known, I wanted to fulfill all of her dreams, solve all of her problems, take away all of her pain.” “Throughout my life, I have been haunted by an agonizing sense that I am failing the women I love,” he confesses in another section.

Smith met that woman, Jada, as her first marriage ended, through mutual friends in a Los Angeles club. The spark was immediate, but the actor felt insecure at first. Five years younger, she had gone to art school in Chicago with her best friend, hip-hop legend Tupac Shakur. The actor envied the rapper’s passion and activism. He recalls that when he and Jada got engaged, he finally felt he was not a coward. Smith writes that he was in the same room as Shakur many times, before the rapper was shot to death at 25 years old in 1996, but the actor never dared to speak with him.

The couple got married the next year, largely at the urging of Jada’s mother. Pinkett Smith was pregnant with Jaden, their first child together (the actress has one older child from her previous relationship). “Jada didn’t believe in conventional marriage, and despised the traditional ceremony,” he writes. “She also had questions about the viability of monogamy as a framework for successful long-term relationships.” Those questions persist, as the public learned in July 2020, when it was made known that Pinkett Smith had an affair that Smith agreed to with another rapper. In Red Table Talk, Smith’s Facebook Live program recorded in the family living room, the couple spoke about their open relationship. At the end of the book, Smith, who does not go into detail about the issue, writes, “we are simultaneously one hundred percent bound together, and one hundred percent free.”

At the Oscars ceremony, Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes after Rock’s joke about the illness that she has sought to make visible for other women who suffer. On Tuesday, she posted on social media, “This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.” It’s yet to be seen whether the rest of the world is also ready to forget the moment when Will Smith revealed the Will Smith he’d rather have kept to himself. As the actor pronounces in his book, after explaining how his obsession with Monopoly brings out his “warrior instincts’' during a calm family Christmas: “I am a Black man in Hollywood: in order to sustain my position, I can’t get caught slipping, not even once.” Last Sunday, for the first time, he couldn’t avoid it.

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