Several words and an ellipsis appear on screen in hazy focus in an interview room: “It has been a minute…”, it reads. They herald a chat between old friends. We know him, and he knows us. Time has passed, too much perhaps, but we’re cool enough with each other that we can joke.
Will Smith’s first appearance in the “It’s Been a Minute…” apology video he posted Friday, July 29, is not visual, but auditory. The text fades in – “Over the last few months, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and personal work … You asked a lot of fair questions that I want to take some time to answer” – and we hear an “mmhmm” and a sigh, that easily identifiable expression of effort and seriousness.
We are to hear a fuller explanation of or reckoning with, the shocking slap Smith delivered on Chris Rock during the 2022 Academy Awards ceremony after Rock had made a dumb joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s short hair. Women of color suffer disproportionately from alopecia. Smith, who is wearing a knitted polo shirt and a ballcap bearing the logo of Westbrook, the entertainment company he and Pinkett Smith founded, shuffles in and sits down with a grunt. A small business-owning dad wearing the uniform of hard work and mild manners. Everybody knows him.
No more introductions are given. “Why didn’t you apologize to Chris in your acceptance speech?” Smith reads with the monotone of a struggling student.” Ums and stutters come first. Twitch and purse lips. The display, we’re meant to understand, is raw, vulnerable, and unscripted. Smith’s YouTube video, released five minutes, and 44 seconds ago, is anything but raw. Multi-camera and smart cuts make this a glossy shoot. We want to feel that Smith has abased himself, therefore performing penance or contrition, by squirming and flailing. However, he must not make himself too bad in either of his current faux sheddings of armor or at the Oscars, otherwise, he risks ruining his prospects.
The PR machine dictates that something needs to be said and performed, making “It’s been a minute…” perhaps the moment when the apology video becomes an art form. The news clip from a decade ago showed Anthony Weiner and Eliot Spitzer apologizing for sexual offenses, wives at their sides, all staring blankly at the camera. Our written statements were terse. A visual narrative is now in the hands of the apologizer.
Maybe Smith is sorry, you might say. You might be right. What does “sorry” mean? It’s easy to regret something self-serving – to wish you hadn’t done it. After apologizing to Rock, Smith places the ball in Rock’s court, telling us that Rock hadn’t been ready to talk yet, a cover-your-ass move. It comes across as a cheap ploy to impress Rock’s mother and show he respects her by apologizing to her.
The way Smith speaks sounds like a suitcase thumping down a staircase because he emphasizes too many syllables. To show he’s thinking about that fateful moment and its consequences, he scrunches his brow and moves his clawed hand in a circular motion. He then says, “I won’t unpack all of that right now.”. Is there any point in watching this if I don’t unpack all of that right now? In his words, “There is no part of me that believes that was the right thing to do at that moment,” but they only serve to distance the Will Smith we’ve known since “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and “Gettin’ Jiggy With It” from the Oscar-winning Will Smith. The real me is not the one they portray. They avoid accountability by saying, “That was me, but it was not me.”
The right thing to do is to apologize with empathy. Before developing specific plans to prevent similar incidents in the future, we must acknowledge and imagine what the hurt of others is like. As Smith talks about the other Oscar nominees, whose glory he overshadowed, he reminds us of his win. He says, “Disappointment is my central trauma,” likely an allusion to the story of Smith’s violent father that he discusses in his memoir “Will,” published last year.
There is, however, one moment when Smith shows his sincerity. As remorseful as I am, I do not wish to feel ashamed of myself. Despite my mistakes, I’m trying to not think of myself as a piece of s—.” It’s a clever line, but he’s seeking sympathy for himself, not those he hurt. Then he concludes, “I promise you that I am deeply committed to bringing light, love, and joy into the world.” He concludes, “I promise you that we will be able to be friends again if you hang in there.”
Finally, the video betrays a faith that Smith will simply be present and say some things in front of a camera for a few minutes and win us over with his natural charm. He is the young man we have all seen grow up in “Bad Boys,” “Men in Black,” and “Independence Day. “It’s not as if the camera and the star power will make everything better this time. There may be a limit to Hollywood’s ability to tell stories about real-life sincerity focused on other people’s well-being.