The Smiths, the first Hollywood family to reveal everything

Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Willow Smith and Jaden Smith (Reuters)
Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith, Willow Smith and Jaden Smith (Reuters)

On the first page of the will smith autobiography titled “Will”, which was released recently, the global superstar recounts a gruesome story of how he saw his father hit his mother on the head so hard that she spit up blood. The first chapters of the book continue in the same vein: a young Will, charismatic and eccentric by nature, assumes the role of the family entertainer to save his mother, himself and everyone else.

I was going to be the star child“, writes. “My mother’s savior. The usurper of my father. He would become the most important performance of my life. And, in the next 40 years, I would not get out of the role. Not even once”.

The fact that he became the perpetual conqueror in his movies beginning in the mid-1990s—Smith defeats aliens in “Men in Black,” robots in “I, Robot,” mutants in “I Am Legend,” to drug dealers in “Two Bad Cops”, to George Foreman in “Ali”—perhaps it was a consequence of the trauma, but it also made him one of the highest-grossing actors in the world. Off screen he behaved much the same as in fiction, which revealed a bit: an inscrutable person adored by millions.

In the last two years, Smith’s muscles have loosened up a bit. He has morphed into a laid-back and somewhat offhand presence on Instagram and TikTok. In addition to his unusually vulnerable autobiography, he also recently appeared in a six-episode YouTube Originals documentary series, “Best Shape of My Life,” which at first glance deals with Smith’s weight-loss effort, but actually explores the fissures each time. deeper and deeper into the outer shell of the character that the actor presents to the audience. For decades, he fused with this hardened facade; he now he’s letting it fade.

This turn towards transparency makes him the patriarch of a family that, in recent times, has made intimacy his specialty. The Smiths — Will, 53; his wife, Jada, 50; his children, Jaden, 23; and Willow, 21—have become the first family that has decided to reveal everything about itself. Between Will’s newfound relaxation, Jada and Willow’s candid talk show “Red Table Talk,” and Willow and Jaden’s music, the Smiths have reimagined an elite old-Hollywood unit for the new era of fame-driven for reality.

The Smiths (Illustration: Jon Key/New York Times)
The Smiths (Illustration: Jon Key/New York Times)

Their trajectory has been the opposite of that of the Kardashians, for example, the platonic ideal of the reality TV clan who achieved traditional stardom by their own force of will (always blurring the lines between new and old fame). Conversely, the Smiths have slowed down, from a conventional celebrity style to a more nuanced and flashy one; the most crucial thing is that they’ve done it with a kind of elegancewhich is amazing given the intensity of some of the reveals at play.

What they have achieved is perfect rethink for the time of online confessionals and trauma-informed personal branding, especially for a family where the parents are receding from the public eye, and the children became famous even before they were able to relinquish that aspect of their lives. It’s also a profound validation of the power of emotional openness and how it contributes to the destigmatization of celebrities, taking the kind of revelations that might once have been relegated to salacious tabloids and unauthorized biographies and turning them into fuel. for self-determination.

Will may be the most publicly profiled member of the Smith family, but Jada is the one who helped lay out the blueprint for the family’s reinvention with “Red Table Talk.”. The program, which can be seen on Facebook Watch, began in mid-2018, and soon became known for its conversations loaded with unexpected vulnerability, both with the celebrity guests and among the hostesses: Jada, Willow and Jada’s mother, Adrienne. Each woman is adamant about her position—this is seen, for example, in the episode on polyamory, in which Willow seems to baffle the co-hosts with her comments—but family goodwill prevents any real tensions from erupting. in the program.

More than one episode delves into the challenges of Will and Jada’s marriage, offering small glimpses of revelation about a couple that is often on everyone’s lips. They insist that they will never be separatedsince after overcoming certain unspecified challenges, “there is nothing that can break our relationship” (at the end of the talk, Will tries to deny some frequent rumors: “We have never been Scientologists, we have never exchanged partners”, although Jada goes on to point out that the latter refers to a “specific lifestyle”).

If you watch enough episodes of “Red Table Talk” after reading Will’s book and absorbing his entire YouTube series, you might discover the same story told in several different ways: The actor has been planning this venting for a long time. Unlike Jada, who approaches the show and shares her truths more lightly, Will has taken this change with all seriousness and is treating it like the production stages of a blockbuster movie: rehearsal, refinement, and flawless execution.

“Best Shape of My Life” begins as a weight-loss program: Will has a little Sunday daddy’s belly. To lower it, he flies to Dubai to work with his personal trainer, as we all would. He affirms that he wants the entire process to be recorded because “the cameras are like my sponsors, I have to account to them.” He takes on intense physical challenges—climbing to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building on the planet, or crossing the obstacle course of the Dubai Police Academy—while also writing his memoir.

Soon, that accountability begins to weigh on him. The agony over the goal of losing weight begins to feel like false tension. As is the stress over her book’s due date (which is emphasized by what appear to be rehearsed voicemails from her assistant). What happens then is a tug-of-war between her compulsion to play a character and her need to withdraw. The fourth episode is titled “I Quit” and then continues with two more episodes—after all, this is a Will Smith production. But the barriers are crumbling: in the fifth episode, he exclaims: “To the [improperio] with the budget, [improperio] the delivery date… they are going to settle for what we give them”.

Several segments of the show are devoted to moments when Will reads excerpts from his memoir in front of family and friends. These moments show vulnerability without ever walking away from acting: Will cries over the challenges of his childhood, and his viewers, including his therapist, agree. At least a few years after her golden age at the top of the box office, she has managed to build a more scalable reward system.


(And let’s not forget that reinventing the family brand is nothing short of a business venture, there are endless cross-promotional opportunities. On “Best Shape,” Will often wears clothes from his Bel-Air Athletics line. When the family gets together at Miami to hear Will read another chapter, the table is littered with the trademark square blue bottles of Just Water, Jaden’s company.)

Will, once a superstar known for seductive maximalism, has already experimented with this type of behind-the-scenes content: “Will Smith’s Bucket List,” a series broadcast on Facebook Watch, and “Will Smith: Off the Deep End,” a documentary by immersion in nature. But the past year has represented a cross-platform career transformation in which Smith uses all the tools of fame to remove every single mask of him.

In her autobiography, she writes poignantly about the ambivalence she feels towards her father, who instilled in her the discipline with which she would go on to build her successful career, but which was also a form of abuse. In one section, he suggests that he once considered pushing his elderly father down the stairs as revenge.

However, the real revelation about Will’s relationship with parental authority comes in “King Richard: A Winning Family,” last year’s biopic of Richard Williams, the father of Serena and Venus. Richard Williams was often maligned for the hyper-focused way he raised his daughters, but Will plays him empathetically as a headstrong hero; he emphasizes his tenacity, but never makes a mockery of it (he was nominated for an Oscar for his performance). All means are justified when the end is so coveted.

The role likely has a double meaning for Will—on the one hand, it’s a celebration of the transformative discipline he learned from his own father (in a non-abusive context), and, on the other, it’s an argument that supports his own style of acting. breeding. In both Jada’s memoir and talk show, Smith opens up about how his heavy-handed parental intervention with Jaden and Willow blew up in his face on multiple occasions. When Willow’s first single, “Whip My Hair,” became a hit, she shaved her head to rebel against the pressures of touring. The action movie she did with Jaden, “After Earth,” was a resounding flop. (Will has another son, Trey, from his first marriage, who sometimes DJs and appears as a guest on “Red Table Talk.”)

But nevertheless, the equanimity of the younger Smiths is quite extraordinary. They’re free thinkers as children of privileged parents tend to be, but they’re also curious and empathetic and generally resolutely caring (if you listen to Jaden talk about how he learned to navigate the rituals of paying for dinner, your heart will melt). ). Given their parents’ entire journey from being untouchable celebrities back to reality, and given the fact that they were both born into a much more transparent generation, it’s easy for them to adjust to their family’s newfound visibility.

For Will and Jada, however, the tightrope of confession is, by nature, an assertion of power. Being this vulnerable, with almost no fear of reprisal or public collapse, is perhaps the litmus test of fame. The only question is what secrets still lurk behind this transparency.

© The New York Times 2022

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The Smiths, the first Hollywood family to reveal everything