The actor, who hit Chris Rock at the Oscars for joking about his wife, has written publicly about his need to compensate for a childhood marred by domestic violence
When Will Smith slapped the award-presenter Chris Rock on the stage at the Dolby theatre on Sunday night, the comic and the audience were all stunned. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” exclaimed Rock.
“Take my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Smith explained loudly, after the joke Rock made about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s shaven head – despite the actor having recently gone public about having alopecia.
Later, when Smith tearfully accepted his best actor speech, he went on to defend his actions by saying he felt compelled to defend his family.
“I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse, and have people talk crazy about you and have people disrespecting you, and you’ve got to smile and pretend it’s OK.
“But love will make you do crazy things.”
Such a dramatic defence was felt by many people to be disproportionate to the slight – however public – that Rock delivered. Yet Smith’s personal history suggests why the actor would have felt the insult was too hard to shake off.
In his autobiography, published in November 2021, the actor describes at length the appalling domestic violence he and his three siblings witnessed his father, William, inflict on his mother, Caroline.
“When I was nine years old, I watched my father punch my mother in the side of the head so hard that she collapsed,” he wrote. “I saw her spit blood. That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am.”
Smith wrote that it wasn’t only the violence that traumatised him, but his own inaction in the face of it.
“Within everything that I have done since then — the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs — there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.
“What you have come to understand as ‘Will Smith’, the alien-annihilating MC, the bigger-than-life movie star, is largely a construction – a carefully crafted and honed character designed to protect myself. To hide myself from the world. To hide the coward.”
Smith’s parents separated when he was a teenager and divorced in 2000. The actor maintained a close relationship with his father but says his hatred resurfaced when his father had cancer and was using a wheelchair. When Smith was caring for him, he said he considered killing his father.
“As a child, I’d always told myself that I would one day avenge my mother,” he wrote. “I paused at the top of the stairs. I could shove him down and easily get away with it. Thank God we’re judged by our actions and not our trauma-driven, inner outbursts.”
Smith’s best actor acceptance speech contained frequent reference to a higher power, who he said was calling on him “to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people”.
He also said that fellow best actor nominee Denzel Washington had cautioned him after the incident that: “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.”
Smith, 53, found fame early as a rapper and musician alongside childhood friend Jazzy Jeff. Aged 22, he won the lead role in sitcom The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, about a high schooler prone to fights, whose mother sends him to live with his wealthy uncle and aunt in California.
Shortly before he was cast, Smith was arrested in relation to an alleged assault on his record promoter, William Hendricks. He was charged with aggravated assault, criminal conspiracy, simple assault and recklessly endangering another person, but all charges were later dismissed.
Smith’s 30 years on the A-list have generally been characterised by good humour and much warmth towards the actor from the public and industry alike. His marriage to Pinkett-Smith is one of considerable longevity, although both have been open about their relationships with other people within the marriage.
Yet the arrangement has made them easy punchlines. At the Bafta awards two weeks ago, the host Rebel Wilson joked that she felt Smith’s “best performance over the past year was being OK with all his wife’s boyfriends”.
Speaking afterwards, Smith said there had “never been infidelity in our marriage. Jada and I talk about everything, and we have never surprised one another with anything ever”. The actor has said that he hoped the couple’s openness will encourage others to have meaningful conversations about monogamy.
Two years ago, Rock appeared to mock the Smiths’ domestic arrangements, by commenting beneath a fulsome happy birthday tweet Will Smith sent to his ex-wife and the mother of his first child. Rock wrote: “Wow. You have a very understanding wife.”
In 2016, when he was hosting the Oscars, Rock took aim at Pinkett-Smith for “boycotting” the event, in the year Smith failed to receive a nomination for the film Concussion. “Jada got mad, said she’s not coming,” said Rock. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.
“You get mad,” Rock continued. “It’s not fair that Will was this good and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20m for Wild Wild West.”
In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 and the domestic abuse helpline is 0808 2000 247. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is on 13 11 14 and the national family violence counselling service is on 1800 737 732. In the US, the suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-8255 and the domestic violence hotline is 1-800-799-SAFE (7233). Other international helplines can be found via www.befrienders.org