Will Smith doesn’t need a redemption tour

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Will Smith doesn’t need a redemption tour

Ever since actor Will Smith stormed the Oscars stage in March 2022 and slapped comedian Chris Rock on national TV, creating one of the most unforgettable and bizarre moments in pop culture history, the actor has been one of the most polarizing figures in Hollywood. While most people can agree and understand that the slap was an act of violence that demanded reckoning at the time it happened, the level of vitriol, anger and resentment toward Smith has been the most prevailing point of debate.

Two years later, as Smith celebrates the success of Bad Boys: Ride or Die with Martin Lawrence and a return to music at the BET Awards stage Sunday, the slap is still litigated in the court of public opinion. However, the movie’s success reminds us that Smith would never lose the support of Black folks, especially in light of the glaring double standards he has been facing.

Smith is one of the brightest stars Hollywood has ever seen, dropping $100 million-grossing movies before it was the norm. In the 1990s, Smith had a top-rated TV show, chart-topping music singles and some of the biggest box office hits of any given summer. Through it all, Smith became one of the most beloved figures in pop culture, especially in Black pop culture.

However, that relationship with Black fans would become strained in later years as the man who was once given the blessing to play legendary boxer Muhammad Ali would lean into bizarre, questionable career pivots. He made a slew of poorly-received movies such as After Earth in 2013, and his front-page headlines were mostly reserved for rumors about his marriage to Jada Pinkett Smith and speculation about connections to Scientology. During these years, Smith struggled to maintain the reverence and relevance he had received through his prime years of popularity.

“I think that Black people have this understanding that the more successful you are within Black Hollywood you are also more isolated from Black people and Black culture,” said Saida Grundy, associate professor of sociology at Boston University. “We still love you, but we understand this is part of Hollywood.”

Smith underwent a career reinvention in 2017 when he officially launched his Instagram page with a carefully curated series of viral videos, inspirational messages and a glimpse into the charismatic Will Smith we grew up with. Even as Smith and Pinkett Smith overshared about their marriage in internet-breaking moments of drama that no one asked for, he still struggled to find his return to box office dominance. Still, the genius of his social media team (and a best-selling memoir) maintained that connection with his fans.

Then the Oscars happened.

Actor Will Smith who won the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role for King Richard, attends the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar party following the 94th Oscars at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California, on March 27, 2022.

PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images

Smith entered Oscar night in March 2022 as the prohibitive favorite. He became the sixth Black man to win the Best Actor award for portraying tennis players Venus and Serena Williams’ father, Richard, in King Richard. The movie was a clear push for that Oscar win that eluded Smith, and his victory felt like a foregone conclusion, a coronation of a multiple-decade run. But, as you know, things went wrong.

Rock made the G.I. Jane joke about Pinkett Smith, comparing her hair to the Demi Moore movie character’s buzz cut. Will approached the stage and slapped Rock before screaming the now-infamous phrase, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—ing mouth.” And millions of people were left shocked.

It was one of the most bizarre, unexpected, jarring moments in such a public, celebrity-filled venue. Even now, when I watch the video again, it feels like artificial intelligence. The Slap was more than a viral moment. It was a cultural firestorm. Even Smith’s most diehard fans would have to admit he did something wrong. Yes, Rock made a joke about his wife. Yes, there seems to be legitimate bad blood somewhere under the surface. But it’s hard — if not impossible — to defend Smith’s antics.

Then the reactions poured in, and it was clear that as wrong as Smith was, the double standards and racial politics would inevitably be the elephant in the room. And if there’s one thing that will get Black people to rally around another Black person — especially one who hasn’t affronted Black people as a whole — it’s the presence of double standards and mistreatment based on said person’s Blackness. 

“White supremacy has always operated by associating bad manners, untowards behavior and violence with the people they are oppressing,” Grundy said. “There was something to them that was jarring about a Black man having the freedom and liberty to walk on that stage. We understand the unspoken.”

When director Judd Apatow tweeted and deleted that Smith could have “killed’ Rock with a sentence like “That’s pure out of control rage and violence,” or when comedian Amy Schumer posted that she still felt “triggered and traumatized” days later, it felt like overblown reactions. And to Black folks, it felt like exaggerated responses based on a history of racial politics that pinpoint Black men as savagely violent, yes, even when other Black people piled on.

Smith was wrong, but the words used to describe what happened left Black folks wondering if these same words would be used for a white man who did the same thing. The subsequent Oscars ban — Smith can’t attend the ceremony for 10 years — also revealed a double standard in light of who has and hasn’t faced bans. Smith’s name is now grouped with a list of convicted sex offenders like former film producer Harvey Weinstein and comedian Bill Cosby. And he’s on a list that doesn’t include any of the men who have been accused of having abused women.

Actors Martin Lawrence (left) and Will Smith (right) attend the Bad Boys Miami Release Day Celebration at Perez Art Museum Miami on June 6 in Miami.

Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images

So when Smith was set to release Bad Boys: Ride or Die this summer, his first full-on attempt at a summer blockbuster since the slap, publications were quick to bring the incident back up, with headlines such as the one in Variety that wondered if fans are willing to “forgive” him for the slap two years ago. The questions were accompanied by box office prognostications that the movie would make anywhere from $30 million to $45 million in its opening week. The movie surpassed those predictions with $56 million.

It’s another reminder of the disconnect between the media, Hollywood and Black audiences, especially in how we see Smith, his star power and the slap. 

While Hollywood may not have been ready to forgive Smith, Black audiences showed that we’d moved on from a bad moment two years ago. If you want proof, look at the fact that Black viewers made up 44% of the audience for Bad Boys: Ride or Die. Smith has leaned into those audiences for the movie’s rollout, surprising audiences in mostly Black theaters and appearing on Black outlets like Sway in the Morning on SiriusXM. It didn’t hurt that Will’s latest blockbuster is also a return to a franchise that was always geared at Black audiences, one that started with the two biggest Black TV stars of the 1990s and always resonated with Black viewers. The same Black viewers who, for the most part, chastised and criticized Smith for The Slap and moved on.

So, is Hollywood ready to forgive Will Smith? It doesn’t totally matter. He has the support of Black fans who were already there. And it’s clearly enough for him to reclaim his status as a summer blockbuster star.

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