On Will Smith, Chris Rock and Why Black Men Can’t Show Emotion Around You People
The macho expectations eating Black men alive and how much the rabid crowd loves it
If you’ve been following Will Smith, you know that this year (and the past few) must’ve been as difficult and as rewarding for him as any. He is a natural spotlight hog and we, the people watching his work for thirty years, have loved him. But he’s never satisfied. Smith’s bent toward obsessive perfectionism leaves him in a psychological lurch, especially in his twilight, as the sun sets on his unreal celebrity run from multiplatinum rapper to box-office stud to American performance institution. He is tireless, yes, but he must also be tired.
At the Oscars, this combination of existential fatigue, a narcissistic drive to become immortal, and the dissonant struggle of maintaining his public Blackness and maleness, came to a head. He walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock with an open palm. It was the Blackest moment in live television history. He showed raw, unprocessed disgust and guttural anger. He’s never shown that before. Not from the real Willard Carroll Smith anyway.
Rock is a lot like Smith. They both come from urban centers—Brooklyn and Philly—that produce stars by the dozen and still surpassed every mark their precursors set. Rock’s early stardom put him opposite serious leads in buddy cop flicks, in animated movies as the raspy comic beacon, and, most successfully, in the hour-long standup pantheon of greats. There was a time, not that long ago, where either man commanded eight-figure sums as leads and delivered their money’s worth on the backend. That era has since passed. Both in their mid-50s, they possess an extra fire to show they’re still kicking, still out here, regardless of what we may think of their decline, age, relevancy, or personal tumult.
The Oscars is a boring, erudite affair. It celebrates niche films that most moviegoers haven’t seen, usually dramas about long-gone epochs or overwrought biopics about “genius” madmen. It’s also the site of the stunted American Imagination, victim of its vast social blind spots and monochromatic versions of “everyday” people. White heroes and Black saviors abound. Crying damsels and noble cowboys muscle into the frame…