Will Smith’s Tragic Lesson

Will Smith
Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage
Baratunde Thurston
March 28, 2022

Chris Rock’s joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s lack of hair wasn’t a very good joke—dumb, lazy, and given that she has alopecia, cruel. Will Smith’s violent response to that joke—the slap, the “take my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth”—was far worse. And given some key biographical details of Smith’s own early experiences, it’s even more devastating. 

Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith have been very open about the difficulties and ultimately the openness of their marriage. (Who knows what really goes on in their marriage, by the way—all marriages have their own unique codes, after all.) What surprised me most, though, is that harrowing physical violence loomed large in Smith’s childhood, and has self-admittedly lingered over his psyche. 

In particular, he was tormented by the memories of his father beating his mother when he was a young child, and remains remorseful about his inability to protect her. “Within everything that I have done since then—the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs—there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day,” he wrote in his 2021 autobiography, Will. “For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward. What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith’, the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction—a carefully crafted and honed character designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”