I met Will Smith once… sort of; depending on your definition of “met.” It was at the 2010 TED conference and I saw him glide through the door on a wave of fawning humans that seemed to swirl around him at waist-height, two or three layers thick. He was perfect: smooth skin, brilliant smile, and he shone, he sparkled like a Twilight vampire (partly due to his silver-grey suit which had some kind of metallic thread in it, catching the light). Floating above his admirers, he seemed like Jesus Christ, touching the sick and wounded.
I wasn’t a particular fan— I’d seen him in Men in Black, and found him funny. I knew his name and the face to put to it, but beyond that I’d never given him much thought. But in that moment, I was drawn to him, and thought, “This is the one and only chance I will ever have to speak to a deity,” and found myself heading toward the swarm.
There were maybe 20 or 30 people around him, but as I approached the jostling bodies, he looked up and met my eye. I reached my arm through the crowd, which, weirdly, parted for me, and he reached across and took my hand.
I said, “You are so beautiful.” And with what seemed a genuinely pleased look on his face, as though no one had ever complimented him before, and with the most beautiful smile I’d ever seen in person, he said, “Thank you!”
I smiled and let go. The sea closed back around him.
Now everyone’s talking about The Slap. (If you don’t know, search “Will Smith slap’” or just forget it.)
Normally, celebrity goings-on are beyond my purview, but because of my brief but indelible encounter with Himself, I took an interest. I’ve watched the unedited/uncensored video of Will Smith getting up on the Oscars stage to slap the comedian and host Chris Rock. I’ve watched it several times. I’ve watched his speech some time later. I’ve watched and read the reactions.
“Chris Rock deserved it for that mean joke about Will’s wife Jada— she has a condition!”
“Will is a good man for protecting his wife.”
“He’s done a disservice to black people, perpetuating the myth that they’re violent.”
“He disrespected the Oscars.”
“He’s a misogynist, thinking he has to look after women.”
“He’s sent a message to the women in his family that he can do that to them.”
“He exhibited Toxic Masculinity.”
And on, and on.
All of these things may or may not be true, but I kept wondering… why?
Here’s a man, royalty, a king among kings. He’s sitting in the front row at the Oscars, surrounded by friends. He knows most of the people there, and he’s at the top of the top: some are his equals, but he doesn’t have to kow tow to anybody. It’s fantastic to be among friends, but there’s an extra special feeling of wonder and pride when all those friends are ostensibly the best of the best (and yeah, don’t argue with me about whether they actually are; in most people’s minds, and in their minds, they are). Furthermore, he’s hoping or expecting to win his first Oscar in one of the top categories, Best Actor.
Will Smith is in an exceptionally good mood. He’s smiling and laughing, relaxed and warm. Then Chris Rock makes a joke about Will’s wife Jada— a joke more bad for referring to a decade-old movie that most people have forgotten, if they ever saw it, than its barb— and Will Smith laughs a real laugh, like everyone else. On camera, for less than a second, we see Jada looking absolutely not happy, the camera cuts away, and next thing we know we’re watching Will’s back as he walks up to the stage.
What happened? Did a relaxed, happy man see his wife’s expression and in a split second explode in rage? I don’t think so. What I think happened is this:
Will Smith does see his wife’s expression and thinks “Aw, shit,” and decides to get up and do something. I would bet he thought it would be funny— a lark, by the king: it’ll be an epic Oscar moment. But as he’s sauntering up the ramp he realizes what he’s doing— this the Oscars, you don’t spontaneously walk up that ramp unless your name has been called, no matter who you are. There is a higher power. His heart starts to race, but he can’t just turn back now— it’ll be funny, it’ll be epic. He comes up to Chris Rock— a guy he knows, a big star who he was laughing with 10 seconds ago— and slaps him across the face.
Then he turns and sees the audience. It’s not funny. It’s a big fucking mistake. Now he’s embarrassed, and a bit scared, and he gets this big hit of adrenaline: Run. Fight.
Have you ever had this happen to you? I have. I can’t remember when, but I know the feeling. You do the wrong thing and you face disapproval: from your parents, or your friends or your peers. And that disapproval is terrifying and you have seconds to figure out what to do. But you don’t consciously choose anything: a rush of chemicals in your body chooses for you: fight. I’ve felt this! A wave of self-righteous anger comes over you and some little kid inside of you pouts and gets mad and starts making excuses to try and cover up that fear of having done something wrong.
By the time Will Smith gets back to his seat, he’s mad— mad at himself, mad at the situation, mad at the people around him and he lashes out with “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” Twice.
Chris Rock is unnerved— up until that moment he thought it was a joke. The audience is in shock. Will Smith’s night is ruined, and now he’s really scared: what will the Academy do? Will he lose that Oscar? How bad is this going to be? He spends the next amount of time pretending to look normal, but his mind’s only thinking about one thing, and he comes up with this excuse about protecting his wife, and he spins that out into a speech about protecting people, and the role he played as King Richard, and how that guy protected people, and his adrenaline is pumping and he’s mad and scared and fucking upset.
They don’t kick him out. He wins the Oscar, he gives his little-kid self-righteous speech, but his night is ruined and he cries.
I know what this feels like. I know what it’s like to fuck up and then instead of standing down fuck it up further by doubling down. It hurts. It’s embarrassing. It’s humiliating.
Will Smith made a mistake. He never would have done that if he weren’t 100% relaxed to begin with and among friends and knew he was a king. I see it as an interesting lesson in privilege: not that he can do whatever he wants but that he can’t; and that he’s not a god, he’s human just like the rest of us.
A day later, after the obligatory apology written for him by some publicist or fixer, he feels like shit and he’s going to regret that moment of, not toxic masculinity, not thuggish behavior, not misogynistic braggadocio, but overestimating his place in the world. He ruined the best night of his life, and I for one, feel empathy for him.