I’m still a bit rattled, aren’t you?
Whatever you think about Will Smith’s ‘slap heard round the world,’ you have to admit that it was significant, a pop cultural moment the likes of which the world hasn’t experienced in quite a while.
For so long, America’s entertainment industrial complex has acted as an antidote to the increasing vileness and cruelty of our politics and economy (never mind the fact that never has our politics and economy been so dominated by entertainment). Hollywood is supposed to be our escape from the violence of the real world. In the last few years, though, reality and fantasy have been hard to distinguish.
This is why Will Smith’s slap is so emblematic of our contemporary moment. At first, who could believe that this was happening? Until it did. Or didn’t? There are those who are still insisting the whole thing was a hoax.
In a deep sense, I found the slap eerily, troublingly poetic. Smith has always embodied a dichotomy that is perhaps most pronounced in the hit 1990s TV show that cemented his fame, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” The show aired from 1990 to 1996, arguably the height of post-Cold War democratic capitalism and American economic and military hegemony.
Smith’s character, the eponymous and semi-biographical Will, is a troubled young Black male from the inner city, Philly, who goes to live with “his aunt and uncle in Bel-Air.” As a trope, the Fresh Prince is firmly within a lineage of troubled young Black male characters, from Jimmy Walker’s J.J., the clownish young Black male in the 1970s sitcom “Good Times,” to Theo Huxtable of the 1980s sitcom “The Cosby Show.”
In a way, “The Fresh Prince” is a unique mashup of “Good Times” and “The Cosby Show,” but for the 1990s. It even echoes “The Jefferson’s” in its “moving on up” ethos. As a Black kid from the Philly ghetto, the Fresh Prince has to traverse and adapt to white spaces, such as the elite private school he attends, and he often does so rebelliously.
Unlike Sunday night, however, the Fresh Prince’s transgressive bit (think of the way he wears his school uniform inside out, the way his white peers, especially the boys, aspire to his particular brand of rebellious cool), plays well universally. The show was a huge crossover hit and is still something of a cult classic among millennials like myself of all races and cultures and classes.
But that was a TV character. In real life, the rite of passage into white spaces for elite Blacks involves respectability and merit and good behavior, not rebellion (which was always the underlying tension between Will and Uncle Phil).
Ironically, the real Will Smith, the global superstar whose light was reflective of, and his career underwritten by, the multicultural, meritocratic ethos of globalization, understood this rather well.
Smith was a rapper, but he didn’t use profanity in his lyrics (Smith won the first Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1989, the year the Berlin Wall fell). And his silver screen and streaming persona has always exuded the Barack Obama-esque optimism in the American Dream mythos and a firm commitment to equality of outcomes — if only you act right.
In many ways, the “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” was the perfect cultural complement of the Third Way liberalism established with the Clinton administration, which “reformed” welfare and got tough on crime by hewing to the trifecta of “growth, opportunity and responsibility.”
Clinton and his ideological colleagues at the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) preached these three tenets in order to get rid of what they felt were old-fashioned New Deal programs premised less on rugged individualism than on collective responsibility and shared sacrifice. It was a social policy approach premised on alleviating poverty and structural inequality by lifting up individual superstars among the poor rather than doing something about the masses.
Smith has been so good and so smart for so long — such a diligent and capable ambassador of the idea that the free-market will provide if only you work hard enough and are well-behaved enough and optimistic enough (just have faith) — that Sunday’s transgressive act seemed untenable.
The slap symbolized a betrayal of the 1990s-era, American triumphalism and optimism that made Smith an international superstar. And the slap cut against the politics of respectability that put Will in the position to even be that close to the Oscars stage in the first place. Indeed, it put Will in the position to do something that I don’t think any Black person has ever done before.
Until William Caroll Smith II walked onto that global stage Sunday night and slapped Chris Rock, no Black person in the history of this country had pulled the polite, respectable sheen off an American institution on such a grandiose scale and not through the politics of respectability (i.e., Ketanji Onyika Brown Jackson), but through the politics of defilement (i.e., Tom Cotton).
We are in rather uncharted territory. Smith may have been able to do this sort of thing on TV. Doing so in real life would be a different feat. Considering just how intertwined the two are nowadays, however, he may just be able to pull it off.