A slap could sting the Smith family brand


From his start as a goofy, G-rated rapper and sitcom star through his carefully managed rise as a blockbuster action hero, Will Smith has spent decades radiating boundless likability. But his amiable image was something of a facade, he wrote in his memoir, noting that a therapist had nicknamed his nice guy persona “Uncle Fluffy.”

Smith said he had concocted this people-pleasing demeanor as a means of deflection during his turbulent childhood. “As an adult, he became my armor and my shield,” he wrote. “Uncle Fluffy paid the bills.”

Smith wrote that he had another, less public, side: “the General,” a punisher who emerged when joviality didn’t get the job done. “When the General shows up, people are shocked and confused,” he wrote in “Will,” his 2021 memoir. “It was sweetness, sweetness, sweetness and then sour, sour, sourness.”

Both sides of Smith, 53, were on display on one of the world’s biggest stages last week when he suddenly slapped comedian Chris Rock during the telecast of the Academy Awards ceremony, complaining that Rock had insulted his wife of 25 years, Jada Pinkett Smith, with a joke. Soon afterward, Smith won the Oscar for best actor and wept through his polarizing acceptance speech. Then he was off to the Vanity Fair party, dancing to “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” his chart-topping hit from the last century, as if nothing had happened.

Now Smith has resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that just honored him with an Oscar and that has condemned his actions and opened disciplinary proceedings against him. And he is confronting the possibility that a night that should have been the crowning moment of his professional career could wind up damaging a family brand rooted in his seemingly authentic congeniality.

For several years, a growing branch of Smith family enterprises has adeptly delivered reality-style revelation and emotional intimacy across an expanding number of platforms. Beyond Smith’s acting career and his introspective, bestselling memoir, there is the popular “Red Table Talk” show on Facebook Watch, in which Pinkett Smith, their daughter, Willow, and Pinkett Smith’s mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, hold forth on everything from racial identity to workout routines to the Smiths’ unconventional marriage.

Will Smith with wife Jada Pinkett Smith at the Oscars on March 28. (Photo: AP)

Smith’s upcoming projects include Emancipation, a $100 million, high-prestige drama for Apple; an action thriller at Netflix; a remake of Planes, Trains and Automobiles in which he would star opposite Kevin Hart for Paramount; and the second installment of a travel series for National Geographic on Disney+. They are all under the banner of Westbrook Studios, the film and television arm of the media company that the Smith family started in 2019. It was valued at $600 million earlier this year when an investment firm bought a 10% stake.

Could The Slap derail all that?

Now that Smith may not be welcome at the Oscars and his public reputation has been tarnished, studios may be wary of hiring him at the moment for lead roles in their biggest films. The companies behind Smith’s upcoming projects declined to comment on whether they were altering their plans in light of recent events. But three talent agents, who were granted anonymity to describe private negotiations, said there had been indications that at least some of his upcoming projects could be hanging in the balance.

Several public relations specialists who focus on crisis management warned that the incident could erode the goodwill that the Smiths have built up, while others suggested the fallout could be contained. “His brand is currently damaged goods worldwide,” said Mike Paul, a public relations expert.

Veteran television producer Jonathan Murray, who has dealt with on- and off-screen drama and family brands in programming like “Keeping Up with the Kardashians,” said that the outcome for the Smiths depends on what steps they, and particularly Smith, take now.

Will Smith and Chris Rock Will Smith, right, hits presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting the award for best documentary feature at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello)

“I think most people would give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Murray, a co-founder of production company Bunim Murray, which pioneered reality TV. “But it really will rest on whether we believe that he is authentically dealing with this.”

The incident came as Smith has appeared to be in a period of transition: seeking out loftier and more personal roles; expanding his media empire beyond film and television; openly discussing the abuse he witnessed his father inflict on his mother; and working on what he has described as self-understanding, through therapy, meditation and even hallucinogens.

“Strategizing about being the biggest movie star in the world — that is all completely over,” Smith said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in December. “I want to take roles where I get to look at myself, where I get to look at my family, I get to look at ideas that are important to me. Everything in my life is more centered on spiritual growth and elevation.”

Part of the image that Smith sought to project had to do with his seemingly enviable family life: his creatively inclined children — Willow, 21; his son Jaden, 23; and Trey, 29, a son from his first marriage — and his union with Pinkett Smith, 50, an actor and musician. That portrait of stability cracked in recent years, especially when Pinkett Smith acknowledged, in a 2020 episode of “Red Table Talk,” that the couple had gone through a separation, during which she had been involved in what she called an “entanglement” with an R&B singer, August Alsina.

Leveraging “Red Table Talk” as a sort of public therapy session, the Smiths have laid bare the details of some of their fiercest disputes, sometimes in the presence of Willow Smith and Banfield Norris, Smith’s mother-in-law, who is known to viewers as Gammy. In one episode in 2018, the Smiths sought to dispel rumors, noting that they are neither swingers nor Scientologists, after reports over the years that they had donated money to causes affiliated with Scientology.

“We have devoted ourselves to each other in a spiritual sense — spiritual, emotional. It’s like whatever she needs, she can count on me for the rest of her life,” Will Smith said in the episode. “We don’t have any deal breakers.”

The revelations about their marriage were met with public derision, including on the awards circuit. In mid-March, at the BAFTAs, Britain’s equivalent of the Oscars, the host, comedian Rebel Wilson, joked about it when she mentioned Smith’s win for “King Richard.”

“Personally,” she said, “I thought his best performance in the past year has been being OK with all of his wife’s boyfriends.” Smith was not present at that ceremony.

At this year’s Academy Awards, even before Rock took the stage, Regina Hall alluded to the Smiths’ relationship in a comic bit in which she suggestively asked to personally inspect some of Hollywood’s most eligible bachelors, joking that their COVID-19 test results had been lost. “Will Smith,” she said. “You’re married, but you know what? You’re on the list, and looks like Jada approved you. So you get on up here.” He laughed and stayed seated.

What did bring Smith to his feet, striding purposefully across the room to strike Rock, was an ad-libbed line about Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. It stung, Smith explained later, because Pinkett Smith has alopecia, which leads to hair loss. “A joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear, and I reacted emotionally,” Smith explained in the apology to Rock and others he posted on Instagram on Monday evening. For his part, Rock said at a comedy show Wednesday that he was still processing the event. (A representative for Smith declined to comment. Representatives for Pinkett Smith and Rock did not respond to requests for comment.)

For many viewers and fans, especially Black fans, the incident involving three of the highest-profile Black artists in Hollywood was fraught and did not lend itself to easy judgment. “It’s a really complicated moment because of all the ways that it resonates with gender and race and power and brand,” said Miriam Petty, a film historian and professor at Northwestern University who studies Black stardom.

In the statement announcing his resignation from the academy, Smith said, “Change takes time, and I am committed to doing the work to ensure that I never again allow violence to overtake reason.”

Now, as Smith seeks to rebound from this episode, he seems all but certain to do it with his family around him. In the aftermath of the Oscars, Pinkett Smith posted a message on Instagram: “This is a season for healing,” it read, using a watchword well-known to the 11 million Facebook followers of “Red Table Talk.” “And I’m here for it.”

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