Everybody was arguing right and wrong. Including me! I wrote a long, serious Facebook post about how tragic it was for a highly successful black man to have role modeled black-on-black violence on live TV in front of millions of young black boys and men – and in front of their dismayed mothers, who are doing their utmost to instill a different concept of manhood (one not emblemized by vindictive physical violence) in their tender sons.
Yeah, maybe. Or maybe it doesn’t matter so much anymore what kids see on TV. Maybe they’re inured to everything by now.
But what’s most interesting is how long and how excitedly people were talking about it. I’m still hearing conversations about it in public places. Heck, I even started one or two myself, with perfect strangers, like the clerk at the print shop. Everyone’s got an opinion, a CONSIDERED opinion, loaded and ready to go.
Forget finger wagging at ourselves for a minute. Forget, “Hey, you know, there’s still a WAR going on in Ukraine! Isn’t that more important??” or “Why aren’t we giving one TENTH this amount of attention to climate change, which threatens our very EXISTENCE?”
The fact is, something about the “the Will Smith episode” captured the public imagination and held it fast. You can say that’s a bad thing, that it’s yet one more indication of how trivial and foolish and stupid we collectively are, how insulated we seem to be from what’s truly meaningful and important.
But whatever. As they say, it is what it is. It’s a fact. We have been collectively fascinated by the Will Smith/Chris Rock Oscars award incident. And what is it that fascinated us exactly?
I think it’s fame. Pure and simple. For better or worse (and most would argue that it’s for worse) – we saw a very famous person reveal himself. We saw what he did when he was unclear about what his life script required.
We saw an actor who, still acting, got confused about his role – and the confusion itself was the genuine thing.
But even more revealing than the confusion was the frantic flailing image-damage control that followed. The tears and apologies in his award acceptance speech. The further apology to Chris Rock specifically in his tweet the next day. Then Smith’s resignation from the motion picture academy amidst a tsunami of public condemnation. It was as if the corporate body politic of show biz types and culture pundits had – after perhaps floundering themselves for a minute there – consolidated against Will Smith.
It occurred to me, as the story “developed,” that Mr. Smith was in trouble. Not because he might not land another big role very soon (or ever?). Certainly not because he’s got financial worries (or legal ones for that matter; Rock isn’t pressing charges). And very likely not because he’s got any more relationship problems than he already had coming in that night.
But his public image, I bet, means the world to him. It’s everything he’s got. More than his possessions, more than his wealth, more even than his marriage and family … it’s his life. And without it, what is he? Who is he?
I’ve known many people who wanted to be famous. There is something about fame – particularly artistic fame – that looks like a kind of ultimate success in life. So many people buy into that dream, that myth.
But what is fame, other than a way that other people see you? And if we live for how other people see us, we are lost.
It’s obvious, right?
The idea that fame can bring fulfillment is a staggering lie.
Chris Rock Is Famous Too
Chris Rock of course is a public figure too. He has been transparent in the past about his marital infidelities and addictions (I “researched” him a little, via youtube, after the Oscars incident) but I smell a bit of deliberate image management even in those revelations – just as I do in the public revelations Smith and his wife made in the past about their non-exclusive sexual relationship. Such disclosures may not have been wise – they may not have even served their (poorly thought-out) intended purposes – but they were certainly proffered to the public as fodder for image construction — not to be of benefit to people or to enlighten anyone about anything.
So … Rock hasn’t yet made a public statement about the incident. I imagine he’s standing back and calculating his own image management, as stars do. He has received mostly rave reviews for his “performance” that night in response to the slap – how he kept his composure, didn’t hit back, etc. – so he really doesn’t need to say anything to justify himself or deflect criticism. He was the “good guy” in the show and he probably doesn’t want to screw that up with any careless or imprecise words.
I wonder what he’d say though if he had the public interest at heart, first and foremost. What could he say, even now, that could potentially have a healing impact on a large swath of society – and especially, perhaps, the larger black community in our country?
What if he were so humble that he didn’t care a twit about his own image, his own public persona? Might he acknowledge, for example, that sometimes humor is hurtful, perhaps even more hurtful than it appears at a glance? Maybe he express empathy for Will and Jada, and perhaps even offer an olive branch … and god knows, even an apology?
Wouldn’t that be strange?
Or what if he said, “You know, that slap didn’t really hurt. It was a shock, yeah, but it wasn’t as harsh as it looked. If Will Smith had really wanted to hurt me, he could have.”
But of course, Mr. Rock won’t do any of that. Because that’s not what famous people do. They spend their life energy creating, protecting, and curating their fame – except when they go a little nuts and try to blow it up, sort of like John Lennon did with his bed-in for peace in 1969, or like what Cat Stevens did in a whole different way, which I believe he regrets now.