Will Smith’s slap shows he’s not perfect. No one is – The Washington Post

will-smith’s-slap-shows-he’s-not-perfect.-no-one-is-–-the-washington-post

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Everyone in the office beamed. The young man in the backward baseball cap went on to describe life lessons he learned playing chess with his dad. And he said he’d asked his mother to take a leave from her job as a Philadelphia school administrator to move near his rented Los Angeles digs to “keep me straight” and ensure his faithfulness to his then-girlfriend.

Smith was, in a word, irresistible. He even confessed that he had no idea if anyone would find humor in him or “The Fresh Prince” — which went on to become a major, six-season hit. “But I crack myself up!” he added.

He’s not laughing now. The “heartbroken” star just resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences five days after letting, according to his statement, “violence overtake reason” at last Sunday’s Oscars. Smith’s resignation zapped me back to the Vanity Fair Oscar party I attended with my media-executive husband. Like millions of other viewers who thought nothing of Chris Rock’s unfunny joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s buzz-cut, I remember my anticipatory smile turn to slack-jawed shock as Smith, rather than fake-jostle Rock, reared back, and delivered The Slap, making some of the best-known faces on the planet go ashen as major stars and industry insiders in the room simultaneously gasped: Was that real?

It was. Most people agreed with Smith’s next-day apology: Violence is indeed poisonous, and his behavior was “unacceptable and inexcusable.” Whatever mix of ego, rage, insecurity, liquor and goodness knows what else could have been swirling inside him, no credible excuse exists for Smith’s behavior.

But I’m deeply interested in his reasons. Since every human with a working mouth seems to have speculated what they are, it may be time to admit collectively that, in fact, we’re clueless as to what really fueled Smith’s explosiveness. A husband’s reflexive protectiveness toward his wounded wife, as Smith’s first mea culpa suggested? Toxic masculinity? A seismic eruption of old resentments toward Rock and his abrasive humor? Decades of being denigrated as “soft” due to his upbeat music and his atypical marriage? Triggers from Smith’s past? The avalanche of faux certainty we’ve heard from pundits and everyday folks about what inspired The Slap doesn’t change the likelihood that Smith himself may not fully understand his uncharacteristic lashing out, or what will emerge from it.

I keep thinking back to Smith's decades-ago charm offensive in that sunny office. How I, too, was drawn in by this thoughtful, effervescent young man who seemed almost too good to be true. This kid's working this room like a pro, I recall noticing. Where'd he learn that? But as the mom of two impressionable boys, I was thrilled to see a bright, gifted young brother extol his parents, espouse faithfulness and defend making rap as clever as it was clean. Why would I resist?

Even then, Smith was presenting a brilliantly crafted image. According to his 2021 memoir “Will,” the ebullient every-youth I interviewed had in fact escaped a childhood filled with “constant tension and anxiety” originating from an abusive, alcoholic father, in which “a missed glance or misinterpreted word could quickly deteriorate into a belt on my ass or a fist in my mother’s face.” By age 13, he was considering suicide. Girlfriend notwithstanding, Smith’s moving his mom to L.A. must have been partly to remove her from his father’s ferocity.

I’m not suggesting Smith be given a pass because of his tormented history, or that the shimmering charisma we’ve enjoyed for decades is entirely a concoction. Myriad people who know him describe Smith as genuinely kind, generous and openhearted. But that isn’t all that he is.

I re-watched The Slap on Thursday. It was as repellent as it was on Sunday. The blow’s raw, ugly force and the petulant-child look on Smith’s face after delivering it makes me reluctant to point out the only thing I haven’t read in response to it: The ways we’re all more like Will — and Chris and Jada — than we’d like to admit: More complicated. More messy than we’d like anyone to know. Yet we expect others to be simple, despite none of us knowing a single human being who actually is.

Take all of the souls who decried Hollywood insiders’ giving Smith a standing ovation and cheering his celebratory dance — which I missed because I’d gone home. Would they have behaved differently if a beloved colleague of theirs — one they’d known for decades as an epically nice person — had an inexplicable meltdown on the night of his greatest achievement? Would their righteous judgment have inspired them to sit on their hands, shunning him? Some would have, of course; I applaud their conviction. More, I expect, would have cheered him.

Many of us forgive, or try to overlook, even serious missteps by people we know, love or are invested in, while railing loudly against public misconduct reminiscent of stuff we’ve tolerated — quietly, reluctantly — in our homes, at work or even in the mirror.

Smith’s career-threatening overreaction to Rock’s joke appears fueled by more than mere anger or protectiveness. It went deep. Smith’s mother, Carolyn Smith, told ABC Action News in Philadelphia, “This is the first time I’ve ever seen him go off … in his lifetime.” Ignoring the devastation she must have felt watching her son in a few unscripted seconds squander decades of goodwill, she gamely praised the work ethic of the kid who in 1990 told me how important it felt to create lyrics “my mother could listen to” while in the process of creating “music palatable to mainstream America.”

Said his mother Sunday, “I am proud of him being him.”

Who, exactly, is that? The perpetually palatable charisma machine? The guy who presciently admitted in his memoir that his “overcompensation and fake bravado” were a “manifestation of the coward within?” Or the Boy Scout-earnest icon described in a 2021 GQ profile as being “gracious to every interviewer,” giving them 90 minutes after agreeing to an hour and then walking outside “to take photos with every fan, smiling for each and every one.”

Losing that guy is agonizing. Especially to many Black people, for whom Smith’s nosedive feels excruciatingly personal.

My designer friend Liz, a mom of two Black sons, had “deeply unsettling” dreams Sunday night and said, “I’m still trying to process it.” Black angst over the incident is partly fueled by how ensnared we feel by our historic — and completely unearned — shame when someone who looks like us behaves terribly. For generations, being Black has meant being held personally accountable for every other Black person’s misbehavior, resulting in African Americans being murdered, grievously injured and stripped of rights and property for sins perceived and crimes they didn’t commit.

We knew how gleefully bigots would grab the ball The Slap tossed them. How they’d run the “blame them all” field with it, without even considering the unimaginable grace displayed by the other Black man involved after being hit before millions, and how often they witness White folks’ foolishness and brutality without feeling an ounce of responsibility. When the Nicest Black Man Alive’s reputation goes down in flames, racists appear to have been given fresh ammunition. In truth, such people’s bigotry is always fully loaded. Their delusions are a poison we should refuse to internalize.

We’re left with so many ironies: Rock, whose most famous comic bit decried the difference between “black folks” and “n------” getting smacked by the well-spoken brother whose wife’s principled stand he’d dismissively likened to getting inside a singer’s panties. Pinkett Smith, annoyed by Rock’s teasing about her shaved head, looking so breathtaking with it that thousands of healthy-haired women probably are considering adopting the style. Smith, winning a well-deserved best performance by an actor award minutes after delivering what may have been his public life’s first unscripted moment.

And what about the commenters contemptuous of Smith’s self-proclaimed desire to protect an independent woman like Pinkett Smith, whom they apparently know better than he does?

The dynamic between intimate partners is seldom simple. Pinkett Smith didn’t need her husband’s protection. But that may not mean she didn’t want it. Can outsiders really understand the message delivered by the look a wife of 25 years shoots her husband better than he does? They can’t. All we can be sure of is that whatever Smith perceived, the result was a calamitous and unnecessary mistake. A 30-something male actor friend of my son’s suspects that Smith, who at 53 could harbor old-school beliefs about marriage and manhood he’s loath to admit, wasn’t as comfortable with the couple’s famously open marriage as he’s suggested. “Jada’s talked about still writing letters to Tupac, about sleeping with that young singer.” (Smith says he, too, has dallied, without being public about with whom). “Will’s been the butt of every Instagram joke for three years,” the friend continued. “The slap was him saying, ‘I will throw my career away to show you I’m man enough to be your husband.’ ”

He paused. “Of course, you’re not supposed to say that.”

Despite millions speculating on details we can’t possibly know, there’s so much we’re not supposed to say. How wonderful it must be, giving voice to a safe, zeitgeist-approved position about The Slap rather than feeling whipsawed about it like I do, sometimes in ways I’m not proud of. Am I appalled? Every time I think about it. Sympathetic, having seen firsthand how dangerously the pain harbored by abused kids can explode at inconvenient times? Certainly.

Disappointed as a mother to grown sons who admired Smith for decades and feel betrayed to have seen the man they believed respected others, themselves and God as much as they do fail so publicly? Deeply. Am I hopeful, as a believer who prays Smith will rise, stronger and wiser, from the ashes of everything he immolated Sunday night? Absolutely.

I felt just as strongly that Smith should have been barred from the 2023 Oscars before his surprise resignation. A stiffer punishment would have resurrected ghosts of embarrassing past winners whose misbehavior went unpunished because it occurred off-camera, including Mel Gibson, who, besides sexually harassing a police officer who arrested him for a 2006 DUI as he screamed about “f---ing jews,” was recorded using racial slurs and threatening an ex-girlfriend with burying her in a rose garden, and Kevin Spacey, whom at least 30 young men have accused of sexual misconduct. Among them is actor Anthony Rapp, who in October will face Spacey in court over allegations that Spacey molested Rapp when Rapp was 14 years old.

Now that Smith is in full contrition mode and won’t be attending any Oscar celebrations in the near future, I’m thinking I’ve said enough about him. But what about us?

Is it time we started questioning the popular notion, suggested by commenters every time an actor, politician or regular schmo acts out, that we should all have transcended our humanity and arrived at some Identity Nirvana where everyone is issue-free and our judgmental, thank-god-no-one-can-hear-them inner voices are permanently shushed? Could we recognize that everyone wants to be seen and appreciated, and that the impossibility of that happening all of the time does nothing to discourage our need for such acknowledgment, or the “crazy things” we’ll do to get it? What if we honored the reason every religion worth its salt embraces forgiveness: We’re all messed up. Though broken and flawed in uniquely unadmirable ways, we’re as stingy with forbearance as we’re in desperate need of it.

Back in 1990, the fledgling TV star who had been a famous rapper since he was 17 told me he had no worries about the pitfalls of superstardom. “I’ve already tripped out on the money, the girls. …” he said. “But people say it’ll change my life … when everybody recognizes my face.”

Confidence notwithstanding, The Fresh Prince couldn’t have suspected how his unique blend of talent and radiance would catapult him to unparalleled levels of adoration and stardom. He couldn’t have fathomed the opportunities he’d earn, the throne — and powder keg — he’d sit on. Or how years of trying to present an image of the perfect husband, actor and role model could become so unbearable that he might slap it all away in one seismic act of self-immolation.

It’s called being human. Welcome to the f----ed-up fold, Will. Grab a light saber and find a way to get the force back with you.

Everyone knows !