For as long as I can remember, Will Smith has been the “nice guy”. The 53-year-old actor has spent the last three decades crafting himself into the perfect image of the ever-pleasant, non-threatening Black man.
From curse-free rap lyrics to his tender, nuanced portrayals of complicated characters, Smith has been a darling of mainstream Hollywood for a very long time. And prior to the last few years, he was one of a few celebrities who had made it to the peak of their careers virtually scandal-free. In him, white Hollywood found a Black man who was equal parts insanely talented and widely marketable, according to their standards of propriety and respectability.
Sadly, that respectability factor isn’t just desirable, it has long been crucial to the success of many Black actors over the years. So when British-American actor of Nigerian descent David Oyelowo wrote a guest column in the Hollywood Reporter last week suggesting that Smith’s actions – he slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who has alopecia – could “have a negative effect on the ongoing push for inclusion” in Hollywood, I wasn’t surprised that he was willing to throw his colleague under the bus like that.
“The moment I slowly realized the nature of what had just occurred on the stage at the Dolby Theater,” he wrote, “I was confronted by the same rising anxiety all Black people feel when the face that flashes up on the news after a crime is reported, is a Black one. You find yourself thinking, ‘What does this mean for us?’ ‘What does that mean for me?’”
As a Black person, I can confirm that when I see a Black face on my TV screen in relation to a crime, my first thought is not what it means for me or how it makes me look.
And in expressing his anxieties over what this would mean for our collective image as Black people, the Selma star placed years of white supremacist stereotyping squarely on Smith’s back. It’s a trap that many highly visible Black men have fallen into; being blamed for actions have historically been over-scrutinized, demonized and criminalized by whiteness, depriving us of the fullness of our humanity.
Oyelowo’s piece also describes an incident after the Oscars in which he was confronted by an older white man who had “relish in his demeanor” as he stated that Smith “should have been dragged right out of there”.
So if I’ve got this straight, that person’s blatant prejudice is somehow Smith’s fault? Give me a break. Oyelowo’s reflection conveniently ignores the centuries of racism that have engendered an interaction like this, and instead focuses on the conduct of the Black people who are being subjected to this racial bias.
But make no mistake, the actor’s desire for Smith to perform gentility for whiteness is something that many Black men like him have intentionally relied on for years in order to enter into, and remain a part of predominantly white spaces. Statements like his reek of a desperation to protect that fragile dynamic, rather than confront the systems that make pandering to whiteness necessary in the first place.
Sadly, as we saw in the aftermath of the Oscar’s, being an “exception” to the Black stereotype certainly doesn’t shield you from racism and abuse when you are seen to step out of line. Where is the grace for Will Smith? Where is the forgiveness? Where was the nuanced consideration for the fact that his wife was just humiliated in front of the world over an illness that she has no control over?
None of the backlash against Smith took into account his history in the industry, and all the goodwill he’d built up over the years.
All it took was one small mistake – one I might add, he has apologised and been thoroughly punished for – for him to be labelled violent, and become a pariah among the very people who claimed to love him all these years.
If this doesn’t signal to Black celebrities that chasing white approval is a wholly empty, draining and fruitless endeavor, then I simply don’t know what will.