The Tragedy of Will Smith

The most telling and true moments in Will Smith’s Oscar acceptance speech were not his own. They were from fellow best-actor nominee Denzel Washington: “At your highest moment, be careful. That is when the devil comes for you.”

Washington said this to Smith in the aftermath of Smith walking up on stage mid-ceremony, with his hands down, and then striking comedian Chris Rock in the face for the world to see. 

Before we go further into Will Smith’s behavior, it’s worth commenting on Chris Rock’s.   

Rock deserves an Academy Award for grace under fire. He did his best to defuse the situation, and the show went on. As far as the joke goes, what woman, in her right mind, would be insulted by being compared to Demi Moore? If you look at the tape, even Smith laughed in the moment. And by the way, Smith would lack the testicular fortitude to attempt the same thing with comedian Joe Rogan

Smith failed the Shepherd family’s four-step approach to forgiveness and ethical living as far as apologies go. Here they are:  

1) Fuck Up.
2) Fess Up.
3) Figure It Out.
4) Forgive.

Fuck Up: To fuck up is to be human. It gets us quickly to a deep, fundamental truth that Alexander Pope’s comment that “to err is human” doesn’t quite reach. We are capable of some really dark, fallen, selfish, prideful shit. That’s why Pope added, “to forgive, divine.” 

Will Smith’s performance at the Oscars is an award-winning display of The Tragedy of Will Smith. All his talk of spiritual clarity, alignment of himself with God, and love, and being a “river of his people” is exposed as a veneer for a narcissist who is in need of some spiritual healing.

Does Will Smith think of himself as human? I don’t think so. He may, however, consider himself divine.

This first step is going to be the hardest for him.

Fess Up: This is the hard step to swallow for the prideful man who finds himself in error. To fess up is to take ownership of your bad behavior—the act, the choice, and its consequences.

A good “fess-up” cannot have “but” in it. Sorry, but “but” is the opposite of a fess-up. It’s a self-righteous rationalization that your apology’s recipient ought to see as a trigger. 

How did Will’s Oscar acceptance speech and apology fare?  Let’s take a look: 

But Richard Williams, and what I loved . . . Thank you, D. Denzel [Washington] said to me a few minutes ago, he said, ‘At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.’”

His fess up begins with a “But”—and then he miraculously remembers and repeats what Denzel Washington told him moments before. Then he returns to but-ing himself out of it.

What followed was not a fess up.  Not only did he slap Chris Rock in the face, but Smith also slapped Richard Williams and the Williams family.

“Art imitates life . . . I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”

There is that but again. “But love will make you do crazy things.” Obviously, Will, since the source of your uncontrollable display is an excess of self-love.

The day after his apology-by-press-release to Chris Rock was not without its own but blemish:

“Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally,” Smith wrote. “I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong.”

A sorry-not-sorry display.

Figure It Out: Taking ownership of a fuck-up comes with addressing the consequences. If you make a mess, it’s your responsibility to clean it up. Out of self-respect and respect for those whose forgiveness you seek, you need to make amends.

Will, you need to get some help. I would recommend you ask Denzel to help find someone for you and separate yourself from the Church of Will.  

King Richard prepared his daughters for life at the top. Part of the “plan” was to prepare them morally to handle greatness at the highest level. King Richard succeeded. You succeed in telling that story. At the Academy Awards, you showed the world that you are unprepared for this stage of your life.  

I think you and your team need to sit down with Chris Rock and his people and come up with a win-win resolution to the mess of your making. The small-in-stature Rock has shown himself to be the bigger man. He could have charged you with assault and battery, with the world as his witness of your Jussie Smollett performance of manliness.

Rock will be forever known as the guy that Will Smith bitch-slapped in the face with the world watching. You owe Rock restitution. He doesn’t need your money, but this “river to your people” does. It’s estimated you are worth $350 million. Work it out with Chris—and think about bringing in Denzel—and come up with a real number and make a gift to the charity of Chris Rock’s choice that benefits your people.

Also, man up and take what you gave with the same grace that Rock displayed. Put yourself out there. Stand up, cameras running, world watching, take what you gave, and then deliver the lines that King Richard gave to his daughters who failed to understand that the lesson of Cinderella was modesty.

Forgive: Follow the first three steps, and you will get the forgiveness that your ego and career craves, but for the right reasons. 

Will, give it a try. I promise it will make you a better guy!

About Guy Shepherd

Guy Shepherd is in his 50s, possesses a full head of hair, and has a beautiful, indulgent, good-hearted wife. His son and daughter are Aces. Life is good for Guy, who is the founder and editor of Planned Man and a hail-fellow-well-met.

Photo: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images

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