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How Sincere Is Will Smith’s Video Apology?
Heartfelt atonement or slick Hollywood performance: Will Smith's apology comes with questions-- and an inevitable conclusion.
Four months after slapping Chris Rock in front of millions of people, Will Smith has posted an emotional video apology asking for forgiveness and understanding. Undoubtedly, the question in many people’s minds is whether the apology is a sincere expression of remorse or a desperate attempt to salvage an imploding career.
Following the Oscars, I wrote a pretty aggressive article (“Will Smith Did a Bad, Bad Thing”) condemning Smith’s actions, not just for the initial act of violence, but for the implication that his wife was incapable of speaking for herself as well as for the perpetuation of harmful Black stereotypes. I said all this despite the fact that I know Will Smith, have worked with him, have been to his house, and have found him to be a generous and gracious person.
I said all that because sometimes our actions are bigger than our celebrity. Even bigger than personal and professional relationships. When they negatively affect the broader community—especially one already under pressure—then those actions demand to be scrutinized so they don’t happen again. And so the community can heal.
Heal? It’s not like we were the ones getting slapped. Our faces aren’t burning, our jaws aren’t sore, our teeth aren’t loose. We aren’t the one embarrassed in front of millions.
Yet, some celebrities project such a charming and compassionate presence that their fans look up to them with adoration and adulation. They become role models for impressionable youth. Will Smith is that rare celebrity that men want to hang out with and women want to fantasize about. So, when such a celebrity does something that shatters the image people have, it’s hurtful to them. This is especially true for people of color whose cultural heroes reflect on all people of color. The popularity of a Beyonce or Will Smith or Dwayne Johnson makes all people of color feel a little more comfortable in our skins. That’s why the impact of Smith’s fall from grace is like an asteroid slamming into the Black community. It’s not fair to him to bear that burden, but it’s a fact nevertheless.
Smith is an enormously talented actor. That may lead some to suggest he’s merely acting contrite and remorseful in the video. Skeptics will also point out that taking four months to respond feels like commerce more than conscience. Within a few days after the Oscars, Smith’s popularity dropped 30 points and several film projects starring Smith were shelved or postponed. Is this video just an opening act for his redemption tour culminating in more movie deals?
I don’t think so. I’m not going to critique his format or his delivery or even his timing. I’m going to look at his words and accept that they are sincere and honest. I’m going to believe that after a lengthy period of soul-searching, family rebuilding, and moral prioritizing, he was ready to face a shocked and disapproving world—one that may no longer be rooting for him.
I, however, am rooting for him.
One of my favorite lines of poetry comes from Richard Wilbur’s “The Pardon”: “I dreamt the past was never past redeeming.” We all live under the desperate hope that our past mistakes can be forgiven. Smith’s slap had consequences on many people around the world, but none that require perpetual punishment and endless finger-wagging. We all have shortcomings, celebrity merely amplifies them to the world. Every misstep is an opportunity for growth and it appears that Smith is embracing that opportunity. We should do our part and support him. It’s what we would hope for ourselves from others.