PHILADELPHIA — If you think Will Smith’s memoir, “Will,” is a juicy expose filled with details about his complicated marriage to Jada Pinkett Smith, you’ll be disappointed.
Smith is not here for that.
The 412-page book is two parts Fresh Prince life story and one part self-help guide. The result: an honest, transparent, and gentle look at how Smith, arguably the world’s biggest movie star, reveled in but is still recovering from his fame.
This is not who the public wants him to be. They want to know what he’s gonna do about Pinkett Smith’s 2020 affair with singer August Alsina. And fans are curious about Willow and Jaden’s public gender expression through fashion and art. Loyal Big Willie fans want explanations. Come on, Son. You owe us that.
Oprah Winfrey said “Will” was one of the best memoirs she’s ever read. Hardcore fans, however, are feeling some kind of way. This touchy-feely Smith — the scared boy, the young man filled with misplaced bravado — doesn’t make sense to them. But Will Smith is just being himself.
This more reflective Smith — straight up — doesn’t owe us anything, and frankly, he doesn’t care if we’re checking for him or not. The Will Smith of 2021 has boundaries. He’s identified and made peace with his demons. And “Will” is the first public stop on his new lifelong journey to self-awareness.
“I put my business in the street,” Smith shared with a packed house at the Met Philadelphia on Monday night, during the first stop on a multi-city book tour. Smith is in conversation with Queen Latifah, his peer in old-school hip-hop and fellow Grammy-winning rap artist turned actor. Latifah gets Smith. And their rapport is natural. She, too, has spent much of the last 30 years in show biz dodging fans’ intrusive questions about her sexual orientation and maintains boundaries of her own.
“I got to the point where I had enough experiences, and I felt like I suffered enough and won enough so that I could share something to be helpful,” Smith said.
He’s quite jiggy in a pair of creased, skinny gray trousers and a turtleneck. She’s paired blinding white sneakers — they have to be Air Force Ones — with a sharp, red pantsuit. The two were chatting it up like the OGs they are.
The second stop on Smith’s personal journey is the release of “King Richard” in theaters and streaming on HBO Max on Nov. 19. Smith stars as Richard Williams, tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams’ long-suffering father, a performance that is already garnering Oscar buzz.
Smith, 53, knows his quest for inner peace will continue as long as he’s living. But he does have a purpose: to find joy and help others. If the first part of Smith’s life was about winning, competing, and accumulating wealth, then the second part of his life is giving back, said Mark Manson, author of “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F—” and co-author of “Will.” Manson introduced Smith at the event.
“It’s really critical to suffer and overcome adversity,” Smith said at the Met. “The overcoming of adversity is how we gain wisdom. It’s how we gain understanding and sometimes we don’t want it. We don’t want to hurt like that. For some reason, that’s how God designed it, you know. The hurt is the road to heaven.”
Hard work and focus
Smith was able to embody the role of a beleaguered yet determined Williams because he grew up with a King Richard of his own, as did many successful Black people — especially Gen Xers.
Williams worked day and night and spent all of his spare time teaching his daughters to play tennis. He tried to show elite coaches how special his daughters were. Many laughed in his face. Williams was beaten by gang members after he tried to protect Venus and Serena from their crude advances.
The unrelenting focus on hard work, education, and sacrifice inspired Smith, making what he shares about Philadelphia in “Will” so relatable.
He talks at length about growing up on Woodcrest Avenue, attending Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic School and Overbrook High School, and Sunday worship at Resurrection Baptist Church. I can see him spitting rhymes in baggy two-tone jeans with the words “Fresh Prince” spray-painted in graffiti at Tustin Playground. And of course, he bought a mansion with the quickness in Lower Merion.
But Smith’s story is also universal in how pain drives excellence — particularly, Black excellence.
Willard Carroll Smith Sr. was a businessman who didn’t suffer fools and commanded his home like a sergeant. He grew up in North Philly during the 1940s and dealt with racism daily. Like Richard Williams, Willard Smith worked hard every day from sunup to sundown to pay off hard-won mortgages. In these homes, a good education and food on the table supersedes family vacations, self-expression, joy — and feelings.
Will Smith opens “Will” with the story of how his dad, who he lovingly refers to as Daddio, demanded that he and his brother, Harry, build a 12-by-20-foot brick wall at his refrigeration/ice-making business at 56th and Arlington Streets in West Philadelphia. Every day for a year, they laid bricks and mortar. “We watched seasons change,” Smith said. But it taught him fortitude.
“For my entire career, I’ve been absolutely relentless,” Smith writes in “Will.” “I’ve been committed to a work ethic of uncompromising intensity. And the secret to my success is as boring as it is unsurprising: You show up and you lay another brick. Pissed off? Lay another brick. Bad opening weekend? Lay another brick. Marriage failing? Lay another brick.”
In “King Richard,” Smith channeled Williams’ nothing-is-impossible attitude. In white tennis shorts, knee-high socks Smith nailed that energy. It came from his experience.
Smith owes his strong work ethic and determination to his father, but he was also deathly afraid of him. Daddio was an angry alcoholic who beat Smith’s mother. One time Daddio hit her so hard, a 9-year-old Smith saw blood gush from his mother’s head.
“My father was my hero,” Smith told the audience. “Adversity and perseverance go together. My father was both things. He was a complicated person. He was the greatest hero, and one of the greatest aspects of my life. He was also one of my greatest sources of pain.”
Smith began to overcompensate for this complicated relationship and its pain with humor. If he was funny, his father couldn’t be angry. He always had to be bigger and better. And that drive became the foundation of his success.
That success was beyond major. The Fresh Prince and DJ Jazzy Jeff were the first rap artists to win a Grammy. Years later Smith pushed himself to audition for Quincy Jones and powerful NBC executives, landing his iconic role on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.” His box office domination started in the mid-1990s with “Independence Day,” which grossed $817.4 million worldwide, becoming the second-highest-grossing movie at the time. This set the stage for Smith’s spate of eight No. 1 film debuts, making him a bona fide movie star. The July Fourth weekend belonged to our Philly homeboy.
Though he had tremendous success, he was hurting and he didn’t talk about his feelings. He became destructive: He broke all of the windows in his ex-girlfriend Melanie’s home when he learned she was cheating. He blew millions of dollars, rolled with drug dealers, and skipped out on his tax bill, a broke but famous existence.
Still, the more money Smith earned, the more he overcompensated. He threw a star-studded event for Pinkett Smith’s 40th birthday that was more about his grandiose dreams than his wife’s special day. Smith’s daughter, Willow, refused to go on the world tour he organized for her 2010 hit song, “Whip My Hair.”
Smith’s need to distract from his childhood pain built his family, but it also nearly destroyed it.
He paused and he got real with himself.
A new attitude
The ability to show vulnerability, especially from Hollywood actors, can appear phony. To some, only rich people — like Winfrey and Smith — can afford to take a break from grinding and get in touch with their inner selves.
But when Smith realized that he was the biggest movie star in the world and he was still miserable inside, something had to change.
“I saw downtime as the enemy, a place where you lose things,” Smith writes. “When I left space between Melanie and me, she cheated. Daddio saw the space between tasks at the shop as laziness. … But the most perturbing aspect of my need to fill every second was what kept me from having to feel.”
Smith reshaped his attitude and started to rebuild. He threw away the fear and now he operates with love and introspection. That’s the arc of “Will”: the first chapter is “Fear,” the last is “Love.”
Even in the midst of his reawakening, he’s still Big Willie, a larger-than-life persona. His sense of humor remains. He’s still in tune with people’s feelings, so much so that he often converses directly with the reader, using the humorous construction “Dear Reader.”
Smith is still our friend, who is following up his memoir and film with a slate of new projects.
Before Smith took the stage, a montage of clips from his upcoming YouTube reality series, “Best Shape of My Life,” which debuted last week and chronicles Smith’s 20-pound weight loss, was shown. (Dad bod, be gone.) Smith will lose the weight, but his “Bad Boys” buff days are likely over, and that signals his self-acceptance. Smith also launched a workout program with Fitbit last month, too.
In December, Smith will debut his adventure series “Welcome to Earth” on Disney+. As part of Smith’s healing, he conquered his fear of the ocean and learned to swim and bungee jumped from a helicopter. It’s now time to share. Smith is also working on “Emancipation,” a film directed by Antoine Fuqua. Smith plays an enslaved man who escapes a Louisiana plantation and joins the Union Army. This explains the antebellum-style goatee sans mustache he’s been sporting. (This is not Smith’s version of the Philly beard, y’all.)
As for his relationship with Pinkett Smith, he wrote: “Jada and I agreed that we would ride together for this lifetime, no matter what.”
And that, dear reader, is all we need to know.