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.”

Mr. 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.”

Mr. 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 Mr. Smith, 53, were on display on one of the world’s biggest stages last week when he suddenly slapped the comedian Chris Rock during the telecast of the Academy Awards ceremony, complaining that Mr. Rock had insulted his wife of 25 years, Jada Pinkett Smith, with a joke. Soon afterward, Mr. 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 though nothing had happened.

Now Mr. Smith has resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences that just honored him with an Oscar, and which has condemned his actions and opened disciplinary proceedings against him. And he is confronting the very real possibility that a night which 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 Mr. Smith’s acting career and his introspective, best-selling memoir, there is the popular “Red Table Talk” show on Facebook Watch, in which Ms. Pinkett Smith, their daughter, Willow, and Jada’s mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, hold forth on everything from racial identity to workout routines to the Smiths’ unconventional marriage.

Mr. 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” where 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 percent stake.

Could The Slap derail all that?

It was not clear whether the incident would affect any of his current projects, like “Welcome to Earth” for National Geographic on Disney+.Credit…Disney+, via Associated Press

Now that Mr. 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 Mr. Smith’s upcoming projects declined to comment on whether they were altering their plans in light of recent events. But three talents 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 good will 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.

The Altercation Between Will Smith and Chris Rock

  • The Incident: The Oscars were derailed when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock, who made a joke about Mr. Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
  • His Speech: Moments after the onstage altercation, Mr. Smith won the Oscar for best actor. Here’s what he said in his acceptance speech.
  • The Aftermath: Mr. Smith, who the academy said refused to leave following the incident, apologized to Mr. Rock the next day after the academy denounced his actions.
  • A Triumph Tempered: Mr. Smith owned Serena and Venus Williams’s story in “King Richard.” Then he stole their moment at the Oscars.
  • What Is Alopecia?: Ms. Smith’s hair loss condition played a major role in the incident.

The veteran television producer Jonathan Murray, who has dealt with on- and offscreen 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 Mr. Smith, take now.

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

Several friends and colleagues of Mr. Smith described the Oscars altercation as a puzzling aberration for a man who has spent his career almost fanatically hewing to professional standards.

“What happened was inconsistent with any behavior I’ve seen working with Will Smith,” said Elizabeth Cantillon, a producer of “Concussion,” the 2015 film in which he played a doctor battling the N.F.L. “He was always exquisite. I think he’s part of the collective breakdown we are all having.”

The incident came as Mr. 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,” Mr. Smith said in an interview with The New York Times Magazine in December. He added: “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.”

Mr. Smith starred on the NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” in the 1990s.Credit…Alice S. Hall/NBC, via Getty Images

Mr. Smith, a Philadelphia native, started performing as a teenager in the ’80s, in the rap duo D.J. Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince, and quickly earned a Grammy — the first ever for best rap performance — for “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” A chance encounter with the producer Quincy Jones led to him starring in the hit NBC sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” which ran from 1990 to 1996, featuring a hip-hop theme many children of that era can still recite. It was perhaps the last bit of his career that happened by accident. (Mr. Smith’s company recently developed “Bel-Air,” a dramatic reboot which just finished its first of two seasons on Peacock as the nascent streamer’s most-watched original series.)

Mr. Smith then set out to make himself the biggest movie star in the world, and by many measures succeeded. With a business partner, James Lassiter, Mr. Smith plotted out, with actuarial zeal, the commonalities among hit movies: special effects, aliens, a love story. He became the face of summer blockbusters, with films including “Men in Black” and “Independence Day.” In his memoir, written with Mark Manson, he provides a handy, if boastful, chart of his prowess: from 2002 to 2008, he had eight consecutive films gross more than $100 million domestically.

For the fans, he was always accommodating. But the mantle was heavy.

“I am a Black man in Hollywood — in order to sustain my position, I can’t get caught slipping, not even once,” Mr. Smith wrote in his book. “I had to be perfect at all times.”

Mr. Smith became the face of summer blockbusters with a string of hit films, including “Men in Black” with Tommy Lee Jones.Credit…Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

Part of the image that Mr. 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 Ms. Pinkett Smith, 50, an actress and musician. That portrait of stability cracked in recent years, especially when Ms. 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 and Ms. Banfield Norris, Mr. 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,” Mr. Smith said in the episode. “We don’t have any deal breakers.”

On “Red Table Talk,” their Facebook Watch show, topics include everything from racial identity to the Smiths’ unconventional marriage. Credit…Facebook Watch

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, the comedian Rebel Wilson, joked about it when she mentioned Mr. 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.” Mr. Smith was not present at that ceremony.

At this year’s Academy Awards, even before Mr. 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 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 Mr. Smith to his feet, striding purposefully across the room to strike Mr. Rock, was an ad-libbed line about Ms. Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. It stung, Mr. Smith explained later, because Ms. 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,” Mr. Smith explained in the apology to Mr. Rock and others he posted on Instagram Monday evening. For his part, Mr. Rock said at his comedy show on Wednesday that he was still processing the event. (A representative for Mr. Smith declined to comment. Representatives for Ms. Pinkett Smith and Mr. 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.

Some commentators criticized Mr. Rock for what they deemed a low-blow joke. Others, like the actress Tiffany Haddish, who co-starred with Ms. Pinkett Smith in the comedy “Girls Trip,” applauded Mr. Smith for seeming to defend his wife’s honor, which Dr. Petty characterized as understandable in a world in which Black women and other women of color are not afforded the same social protections as their white counterparts. But was that stance anti-feminist? Did it glorify violence? “Again — messy, messy, messy,” Dr. Petty said.

Since turning 50, Mr. Smith has relaxed, to some degree, his public image. A recent YouTube series, “Best Shape of My Life,” that ostensibly targeted his non-superhero dad bod was really about unbuckling his own strictures of behavior. He has traveled without security for the first time in years; at last learned to swim; and tried to come to terms, after the death of his father in 2016, with the toll that relationship took.

In the statement announcing his resignation from the academy, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Ms. 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.”

Julia Jacobs contributed reporting. Susan Beachy contributed research.

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