“This woman beside me is the only reason @RedTableTalk could even be imagined,” said Jada Pinkett Smith in an Instagram caption last October at the grand opening gala of Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta, where she stood alongside Oprah, the queen of daytime television.
It’s a smart comparison on Smith’s part, though ratings for her program, which Facebook launched in 2018, obviously pale in comparison to those for Oprah’s show in its prime. Still, Red Table Talk — which Smith cohosts with her mother, Adrienne Banfield Norris, and daughter, Willow Smith — has similar DNA. Alternating between episodes about sensitive topics like addiction (Banfield Norris opened up about her reliance on heroin in her youth in one early episode), mental health (Kid Cudi got candid about depression), and interracial marriage (Grey’s Anatomy actor Ellen Pompeo appeared on the show to talk about her marriage to a black music executive).
An appearance on Red Table Talk has also become damage control for black celebs entangled in drama, which makes sense considering the dearth of outlets that provide an appropriate venue for these figures to speak their mind. Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club, for example, has historically provided candid (and often viral) mea culpa moments, but its hosts — Charlamagne tha God, DJ Envy, and Angela Yee — have also been criticized for mocking trans women (they subsequently apologized), and sometimes leave their guests looking worse off than before. Even print publications like Essence may have once been a place where a black celeb could clear the air — but now, more often than not, embattled figures look for a platform that will attract lots of eyes, in an environment where they will feel comfortable and where their image won’t be further damaged. Smith herself is a celebrity — one who has been married to one of the biggest movie stars in the world for more than 20 years — so she’s able to empathize with the people who come on her show from a unique perspective. She's more than familiar with the pressures that accompany fame, especially after a public snafu. Which is why Red Table Talk is so appealing: Smith has created a place where black public figures can voice their opinions without fear of retaliation from, say, a seasoned journalist who’d likely ask tougher questions.
From Jordyn Woods’ alleged indiscretion with NBA player Tristan Thompson to T.I.’s disturbing comments about his daughter’s hymen to Snoop Dogg’s recent vitriol toward Gayle King, black celebs have clearly caught on to the fact that they'll be warmly welcomed to say their piece on Smith's show.
Smith’s considered approach has made her the first stop on any given black celeb’s image rehabilitation tour — Woods, T.I., and Snoop exclusively talked to her first about their unfavorable press. It’s also given back power to the embattled subject in a way that magazines and late-night shows rarely do. And viewers have taken notice — they actually tune in to watch. But the tension now lies in whether Smith can create a space where black celebrities can come to a genuine understanding of their public missteps or whether her show has just become a venue for black celebs to be coddled without any real accountability.
When Red Table Talk began in spring 2018, it had a few mildly viral moments; Jada’s conversation with her husband’s ex-wife, Sheree Zampino, about co-parenting was lauded for its nuanced look at blended families. The women of the famous Curry basketball dynasty also appeared on the show, opening up about being in relationships with superstar athletes. Ayesha Curry was honest about her own insecurities about not receiving as much attention from men as her husband does from women, prompting a social media backlash that both she and Smith later addressed.
But it was Smith’s interview with family friend Woods in March 2019 — about two weeks after news dropped that the model, who had had a very public friendship with Kylie Jenner, allegedly hooked up with Thompson, who was then Khloé Kardashian’s partner — that became Red Table Talk’s breakout moment.
Sporting a fresh-faced look — her hair in a high ponytail with her edges perfectly slicked down, Woods appeared on the show to give the world her side of the story. “I want to give you the opportunity to tell your truth, and I want you to tell it through the lens of what your part has been, because that’s the only part you can change,” Smith told Woods at the start of the interview. “And that’s the only part that you can be responsible for, heal from, and make amends.”
During the interview and through tears, Woods was generous toward Khloé, who she said had been 'dehumanized' over the course of the drama. Still, Khloé, during the airing of the show, tweeted that Woods was a liar and the definitive reason her “family broke up.” This was not true, since TMZ had released video footage of Thompson kissing other women back when he and Khloé were still together — well before anything related to the Woods debacle took place.
Black women, flocking to Woods’ defense, blasted Khloé for the attempt to shame her when Thompson was the one she was in a relationship with. In another tweet about Woods’ decision to appear on Red Table Talk, Khloé stressed that the situation should have been discussed “PRIVATELY,” which Thompson had been doing with her. But a clandestine conversation only would have served the Kardashian/Jenners, who use their E! show to capitalize on a moment like this, so their scandals can be perfectly edited to their liking.
Whether or not you believed Woods’ recounting — she essentially denied doing anything intimate with Thompson, save for a kiss she gave him on the lips as she was about to leave — it was a savvy attempt to take back control of the narrative and level the playing field with the Kardashian/Jenners. The episode set a viewing record for Facebook. To date, it has been viewed more than 30 million times. The moment was particularly exciting because the Kardashian/Jenners, who have historically been accused of appropriating black culture, were one-upped by a black woman, arguably the second to beat them at their own game.
But the tactic of using Smith’s show as a means to rehabilitate a wounded celeb’s image is sometimes painfully transparent. That’s what happened when rapper T.I., joined by his wife Tameka "Tiny" Harris of the famed ’90s R&B girl group Xscape, appeared on the show this past November. T.I. was there to address comments he’d made about joining his teenage daughter Deyjah Harris during gynecological visits to make sure her hymen was intact. The backlash to T.I.’s comments was swift, with women like #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and Gloria Steinem taking him to task about his comments.
“I wouldn’t come anywhere to speak about this, because I know most people just use it as a platform for themselves,” T.I told Smith during the interview. He explained he had been reluctant to issue a public statement out of respect for his daughter.
The tactic of using Smith’s show as a means to rehabilitate a wounded celeb’s image is sometimes painfully transparent.
On the show, T.I. said he was asked about parenting on the Ladies Like Us podcast. He said he jokingly responded and “embellished,” but his response came from “a place of truth.” “I think a lot of people took it extremely literal, because if you put any of my reputation — who I am as a father and who I’ve been — I honestly thought people knew me better than that,” he said.
Even though T.I. was discussing his daughter, his comments were in line with how he’d talked about women in the past. This is the same T.I. who, in 2015, said he couldn’t vote for a woman president because “women make rash decisions emotionally.” It was a statement he later apologized for, but one that highlights his rigid and patriarchal way of thinking.
T.I. clarified that he “never said [he] was in any exam room” during Deyjah’s checkups and that he wasn’t doing it now. This prompted Tiny to tell the roundtable that it had only happened when his daughter was between the ages of 16 and 17. In the interview, T.I. added that Deyjah, who is now 18, never had any “objection” to him being present, as he was only trying to be an involved father.
“When I heard what happened, I said, ‘I know what he’s trying to say.’ He’s like, ‘I’m present. I’m present in a way that anything that she needs, any kind of trouble I feel like she might be in, I’m right here. I got her,’” Smith said to T.I.
Notably, though T.I. said he apologized to his daughter, she was not there to speak on her own behalf, and Smith did not push back on his inconsistencies or troubled history of making misogynist comments. At the end of the day, the verbose rapper’s 20-minute interview clearly wasn’t enough time to help him understand the true impact of his words and actions. If the 6 million people who viewed the episode are the measure by which we determine whether T.I. was able to successfully alter the narrative, then he definitely came out on top. The majority of the comments on the page show people of all sorts thanking him for telling his side, saying they understood his heart was in the right place. As of late, headlines about the rapper have been fine; blogs have gushed about him and posted throwback photos, and well news outlets have covered sentimental Instagram posts about his daughters. Essentially, his press has been the same as it was before, so the rehab worked — even though on Smith’s show he’d expressed not understanding how women were oppressed under the patriarchy and characterized feminism as “women wanting men to stop silencing them so they could silence men.” At the interview’s conclusion, T.I. said, “I understand that I don’t understand.”
Snoop Dogg’s interview with Smith was ingratiating in a similar way. The veteran rapper came on to address the comments he made about Gayle King after she brought up Kobe Bryant’s 2003 sexual assault case in an interview with Lisa Leslie. Dogg called King “a funky dog head bitch” and said that she and Oprah were race traitors among other things. He eventually issued an apology.
On Red Table Talk, Snoop said he called King out because he wanted to protect Vanessa Bryant and her children, who were “still grieving.” But his appearance was really just a 30-minute fluff interview to placate the rapper for doing the bare minimum — apologizing — rather than a serious reckoning about the consequences of his words. Nothing illustrated this more than when Snoop said, “You may think it was more people against me; it was more people with me.” This referred to his initial outburst toward King and the support he received from black men, as well as his comment that “you guys,” presumably referring to King, “are targeting us, you guys are coming for us, and you guys are us.” Smith didn’t ask him what he meant.
The conversation largely remained on that surface level. Smith could have asked: When is the appropriate time to talk about alleged sexual assault? How should repercussions unfold for women like King who speak out? Snoop could've been questioned about the responsibility of adult men to educate themselves on these issues without leaning on women to save them, but the conversation kept treading water.
An appearance on the show just becomes a glorified faux therapy session in which celebrities protect each other's egos.
Instead, the hosts applauded Snoop after a video message from self-help guru Iyanla Vanzant, in which she said, “My challenge to Snoop and anyone else involved, particularly those who have a public forum, is to say and do only those things that will facilitate healing, and I believe that's what the apology did.” Journalist Jemele Hill also gave a video message to Snoop, saying, “I just appreciate the fact that you were able to help us push this conversation along in a positive direction.”
What’s lost in all of this is how King was made to feel. Red Table Talk missed the opportunity to host a meaningful conversation about the ease with which black men denigrate black women without any repercussions. Snoop said his change of heart only happened because he received a call from his mother, who told him that he was raised better, which prompted him to publish the video apology. Jada said she’d extended an invitation to King to join the conversation. Reiterating what he said in his apology, Snoop also noted that he had reached out to her so that they could have a private conversation about what happened.
Online opinions about Snoop’s visit to the red table were mixed. Days before the interview aired, some people said they understood where the rapper was coming from in his initial video directed at King. “Yes his delivery wasn’t the best, but I damn sure didn’t feel powerless as a woman hearing him talk about Gayle[’s] disrespectful ass,” a Twitter user said. Others believed King should have made an appearance on the show instead of Snoop. But other people felt Snoop’s attack on King was uncalled for, as he called a “black woman out of her name in defense of Kobe.” In this particular case, it seems fans of Snoop’s have stuck to their beliefs about him being right. Generally, these interviews appear to work best for people who are at a disadvantage in terms of power, like Woods was with the Kardashian/Jenners. But for T.I. and Snoop, the interviews have mostly been uncritical.
The great thing about Smith's show is that the people who appear on it seem to have a willingness to want to do better, to grow and learn from their mistakes. But if there's no interrogation about how celebs in hot water came to their problematic views, and if there’s no real pushback on why their views were ill-advised, that reckoning can’t really happen. An appearance on the show just becomes a glorified faux therapy session in which celebrities protect each other's egos.
“This conversation is not about taking sides. This conversation is not about trying to prove who’s right or who’s wrong. This is about healing,” Smith said at the start of the Snoop interview. But how can anyone truly learn and heal from the damage they have inflicted upon others if people aren’t willing to ask the difficult, uncomfortable questions that would actually set them on that path? ●
This post has been updated to clarify that the Breakfast Club hosts did not expressly say that they support violence against trans women.