by Eric Darnell Pritchard
Yesterday a friend text me a link to actress Janet Hubert’s (affectionately known as “Aunt Viv,” the character she originated on the 90s sitcom “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air” starring Will Smith) video message criticizing Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith after Pinkett Smith released a video to Facebook called “We Must Stand in Our Power.” In the video, Pinkett Smith discusses the problem of the lack of diversity within the Academy Awards, a program of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for inviting Black celebrities to perform or present the awards though Black actors, writers, directors, and other professionals rarely receive Oscar recognition. Pinkett Smith ends the video saying Black people should boycott the Oscars and other such awards, and invest in the Black communities award shows and programs, indicating that she would not be watching the Oscars and sending a shout-out to her friend Chris Rock, who will be hosting.
The summary of Hubert’s major claims go something like this: 1) Jada Pinkett Smith could care less, she’s just a mouthpiece for her husband who is salty he didn’t get nominated for an Oscar, 2) Will Smith don’t care about other Black actors, which Hubert says is evidenced when he allegedly did not go get her and the rest of the cast the same raise he got when they were on “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” together back in the day when he was asked by the cast to do so, and 3) the world has way more problems going on and boycotting the Oscars is inconsequential in comparison.
First, I take issue with Hubert reducing any woman, and in this case another Black woman, to being a mouthpiece for a man simply because she is expressing her opinion. The degree of misogyny and violence in this very premise is so disappointing because we all love Aunt Viv and expect more. It is also not true. Jada Pinkett Smith does have a record of being vocal about a number of sociopolitical issues going back many years, including comments on education, human trafficking, and rape culture. One may not always share Pinkett Smith’s perspective, but she is not one that has not had an opinion on a matter of social and political consequence and not said a word. She and Will Smith have hosted the BET Awards, and produced films and television shows featuring other Black artists. Pinkett Smith’s being vocal about social and political issues is not the thing that makes Hubert diminishing her as a mouthpiece problematic; what makes it problematic is that reducing her to a talking head is dehumanizing and disrespectful no matter what.
Even if Will Smith is just mad he didn’t get nominated or if Pinkett Smith is mad because of the same, it wouldn’t change the truth on which Pinkett Smith’s critique is based. This is what people need to focus on, not on whether or not we think the Smiths are ideal people to make the critique. The response to this clear problem is on everybody, not just them, and to say we don’t have to do anything about it because they are insincere in their critique and whining just because Will Smith didn’t get nominated is dangerous and politically naive. The stakes of this conversation as so much more than that, and it is an opportunity too raise people’s consciousness and get something accomplished regardless of whether or not you like the person speaking up. Also, Will Smith hasn’t said a word, Jada Pinkett Smith is the one calling stuff out.Those who pay attention to Black pop culture know that this is not uncommon with the Smiths, Jada Pinkett Smith tends to be the one paying attention and speaking out (no shade on Will). Why should Jada Pinkett-Smith’s critique be dismissed because of Ms. Hubert’s grievance with her husband?
By bringing up the fact that Will Smith didn’t get the entire cast a raise on “The Fresh Prince of Bel Air,” Ms. Hubert makes her critique personal while simultaneously accusing the Smiths of being selfish. I do not want to call her bitter, because she has the right to her experience and to share it as she sees fit. I do wish she’d find a way forward for her own wellness since this feud has been over twenty years old now, but it’s her life and her right to it. So let’s just accept as a thought project that Will Smith is everything Janet Hubert says he is, this would not be the time to make it about that unless you do so in a way that forwards the conversation about the racism of the Academy Awards at the same time seeing as though that conversation is actually getting some play in this moment. Ms. Hubert could have been like ‘I don’t like his ass because he didn’t give me no coins, but the Academy Awards are still racist and sexist …’ because she knows they are, clearly. She could even have aired him out for her grievances with him and challenged them to do more on the matter. But instead she let’s the fact that she wants to shame him get in her own way, and by extension everybody’s way, and ends up silencing his wife’s very valid critique of the industry’s racism and lack of diversity, the same industry Hubert herself is critical of in the same video.
The argument Hubert makes that what is happening with the Academy Awards is not important in comparison to all the other issues happening in the world, and those specifically effecting Black people, is the most problematic point. The issue with the Academy Awards is institutional/structural racism. That is a problem. No, Oscar Racism is not the same as police brutality. It is also not cisgender and transgender Black women, children and men being killed with impunity in the streets just because they are Black. It is not poverty. It is not a lot of things that are awful and need our attention, but it doesn’t mean it isn’t important. All these things are connected and part of the same system. It is a different head on a multi-headed monster that needs to have its head knocked clean off its shoulders for real systemic and social change to take place. These are facts.
Ms. Hubert saying “people have real problems” was a dog whistle to people who do not have the economic resources and social support of Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith to encourage people to turn their heads to the criticism of Pinkett Smith. This is dangerous because it puts people in the position of having to turn their heads to being vocal about a change that could be in their own best interest or the best interest of other people who are dealing with racism in the film and television industry, and by extension, to turn their heads to the psychological violence of a lack of representation in the industry and recognition for ones good work. It matters. It is basically a call to have us dismiss what Pinkett Smith says about the academy on the basis of them being rich and successful. The fact that they are rich is such a non factor in whether or to we call the Academy Awards out for their mess. That’s the issue at hand. Let’s all focus.
As for Jada Pinkett Smith’s video, I am here for much of what Pinkett Smith expresses. The Academy Awards have clear race bias when it comes to the history of nominations and awards. That bias is even more clear even comparing the number of Black men that have been nominated and/or won an Oscar to Black women. There are so many receipts to these facts it would be an insult to even have to debate anyone about it, but let me give you a few. Exhibit one, only one Black actress, Halle Berry has ever won the Academy Award for Best Actress. There is one White woman, Katherine Hepburn, who won that same award 4 times. Furthermore, outside of Hepburn the entire list of best actresses are White women.
Exhibit two, someone recently commented that Halle Berry and Denzel Washington being awarded Best Actress and Best Actor in the same night in 2002 was proof that things have changed for the Academy Awards from the past, and I’m like, ummmm, NO! How many years have a White man and a White woman done that very thing year after year? Answer: Pretty much every year, the exceptions being the handful of times one of those two awardees had ben a person of color but the other was again White. And saying “a handful of times” is generous. Those are good odds, if you’re a White actor or actress in Hollywood. Not so good if you are a person of color, and certainly not if you’re a woman of color in Hollywood. So Pinkett Smith and everyone who is outraged by the Academy Awards is clearly right on this front.
Where I think Pinkett Smith misses the mark is the following. First, many Black artists and Black people have already had this very same call for Black people to invest in our own awards shows, art programs, and so forth. Actress, comedian and producer Mo’Nique, who won an Academy Award for the film “Precious,” has said in interview that while she sees why the Oscar is so important to people for her winning the NAACP Image Award was her big moment. Many others have said and feel the same. So this is not a new observation or call. I am glad, however, that Pinkett Smith feels it is time for she and other A-list Black Hollywood people to do the same. May I suggest Pinkett-Smith and any Black actors who join her start by petitioning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the Oscar Awards producer Reginald Hudlin, and Pinkett Smith’s friend Chris Rock? They could ask the three of them, not because they are Black but because it is right and they are in leadership roles within the Academy and Academy Awards, to make some hard decisions about how to address this problem today and not just show up to work and say “this is wrong” but the show must go on, which is basically what they are saying. I mean, the fact that Boone Isaacs can only say she is disappointed with the lack of diversity (she said the same thing last year when the #OscarsSoWhite campaign emerged by the way, and ain’t a damn thing change!) and Rock makes a joke via Twitter about the Oscars being “the White BET Awards” (boy, bye!), shows the sea of sickness in which we are swimming when dealing with racism in Hollywood.
I also disagree with Pinkett Smith’s statement that the Academy has the right to honor and invite whomever they choose. If the decision they make is one that is discriminatory and reflection of deeply held structural racism as an institution, and clearly this is the case (see above receipts), then they do not have the right to continue as they have been. It has to stop. Saying that Black people need to invest in our own award shows is fine, but that doesn’t mean that the Academy gets to go about the business of not being accountable to diversity and social justice. No, ma’am. These things go hand in hand. Change has to come to the Academy Awards, and Black Hollywood celebs who have valued it over the Image Awards and other Black created and operated honors need to do better. It’s not either or, it’s both and.
What I would have liked is to see not just Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee (who also announced a boycott of the Oscar’s via instagram) be the two who piped up individually, but to see Black Hollywood collectively come together and say “No more!” Imagine what it would do if Pinkett Smith, Lee, and other Black celebrities and allies wrote and signed an open letter detailing the decades of discriminatory practices within the Academy Awards and demanding change. Imagine what it would look like if the NAACP were to say, we will hold the Image Awards on the same day as the Oscars every year and ask all Black artists, Black people and other people of color and White allies to do the same. Their is precedent (though not nearly the same as what is happening with the Oscars, so I do not mean to draw a correlation of sameness) that offers a good model they might pursue. I was but a child when in 1991 when 1,603 Black women took out a full-page advertisement in the New York Times referred to as “African American Women In Defense of Ourselves.” The ad came in the wake of the hearing regarding Clarence Thomas’s sexual harassment of Anita Hill. During the hearing politicians, the media, and general public were responsible for so many historically inaccurate, pathologizing, and demonizing comments about Black women and Black womanhood that the petition these women made helped put the voices of Black women in the center of their own stories in the public, and not continue to be misrepresented and talked over (as Hill had literally been talked over in the hearings and how Black women were and still are) in everyday life. This is what it means for people to come together publicly and say enough is enough.
Yes, one persons critique does matter on its own, but when you have the social and economic resources to draw support from others toward the good it should be used. Black Hollywood, and by this I mean the collective, are in this position, and I wish they would exercise it for the good of social change in the ways many Black people without the same social, political and economic resources do so everyday. I think Pinkett Smith knows as much given her request, but it can be more than what she has proposed and it can be organized and occur on a much larger scale.
What I do not think that Black Hollywood is willing to confront is that the racism of the Academy Awards depends on their silence and it has bought that silence for years for many of them with the promise of maybe they too winning an Academy Award if they play nice. At the very least it has promised them work (however meager that work is) if they keep their head down, mouth shut, and continue to play the game. I still believe that the only reason Viola Davis didn’t win an Oscar for “The Help” was because she did interviews talking about the lack of diversity in the industry during the period when everyone is campaigning for an Oscar. She risked it then and is still risking it now because it is the right thing to do, others should do the same they have nothing to lose whether they realize it or not because here is the truth: meritocracy, even in Hollywood, is a myth that does not and has never benefited Black excellence, so just doing the work ain’t gonna get you a thing. So, you might as well speak truth to power and sleep well, with or without an Oscar.
Black hollywood needs to look to their Black actor ancestors, in particular Paul Robeson, Ruby Dee, and Ossie Davis to name only a few, who made decisions to speak up for the truth of social injustice all over the world even when it cost them professionally, socially, and politically. In fact, today’s celebs do not even have to start by being an activist global citizen like Robeson and his wife Eslanda Goode Robeson, or getting thrown in jail for civil disobedience like Dee and Davis. They can start at home with their other A-list friends by saying enough is enough and doing something about it right where they stand.