Will and Jada’s “Red Table Talk” Was A Savvy PR Move

The couple’s Facebook Watch interview about Jada’s relationship with August Alsina was eye-opening in more ways than one.

In an interview that has been viewed over 31 million times since last Friday afternoon, Jada Pinkett Smith, 48, and her husband, Will Smith, 51, talked about the scandal that has ruptured their public-facing personae and their implacably cool coupledom. They admitted what their representatives had initially vehemently denied a couple of weeks ago: that during a period of separation with Will four and a half years ago, Jada had a relationship — what she called “an entanglement” — with R&B singer August Alsina, 27.

Notably, Will was absent from promo for the episode, which premiered without warning, save for a tweet from Jada on July 2, which read, simply, “There’s some healing that needs to happen...so I’m bringing myself to The Red Table.” A few days later she tweeted a photo of a red table and explained that the episode had been filmed the previous week, but was held back “out of respect for the far more important situations that have been happening around us.” Red Table Talk’s usual cohosts, Jada’s mother, Adrienne, and Will and Jada’s daughter, Willow, were not featured in the episode. And so the episode was a somewhat radical sight: Two celebrities at the center of a public scandal talking directly to each other without an interlocutor mediating the conversation.

Contrary to the wishes of thousands of jokesters who’ve publicly tweeted or memed the situation, August Alsina was not involved in the episode. In a recent interview with Vulture, he says he had not seen the episode, but stands by what he said on a June 30 interview. On that day, Alsina premiered a 68-minute interview on his YouTube page, conducted by Breakfast Club host Angela Yee. Ostensibly a promotional interview meant to help with the rollout of Alsina’s latest musical project, the musician divulged that he had been in what he described as a yearslong romantic relationship with Jada, during what he called the Smiths’ “transformation from their marriage to life partnership.” Making it clear that he’s not a “troublemaker,” and that “drama makes [him] nauseous,” he said that he’s speaking out now because his character has been questioned and his “heart space had been blocked” and that consequently, he wants to “express [his] truth.”

Alsina, who would’ve been 22 years old in July 2015, when he allegedly met Jada, then 43, revealed what some have long suspected. After first saying that Will “gave me his blessing,” he claimed that he had been in love with Jada. “I totally gave myself to that relationship for years of my life. And I truly and really, really deeply loved and have a ton of love for her,” he said. “I devoted myself to it. I gave my full self to it, so much so to the point that I can die right now and be okay with knowing that I truly gave myself to somebody... I experienced that, I know what that feels like, and some people never get that in this lifetime.” Reticent to speak ill of Jada nor Will, Alsina called the Smiths “beautiful people,” and “family,” whom he still loved.

The admission instantly sparked online controversy, partly because it was a blockbuster revelation about an existing Hollywood couple, but also because people were curious about the timeline. When and how did Alsina’s relationship with Jada pivot from slightly familial to romantic? Previously, in July 2018, he’d appeared on Red Table Talk, introduced by Jada as a “family friend,” whom she had met through her children, during Jaden and Willow’s 2015 performance at the Wireless Festival. The episode was about drug addiction; he appeared alongside Jada’s mother and Will’s sister Ashley, who all spoke about their struggles with addiction. Alsina talked about his previous dependence on prescription pills, and credited the Smiths with helping him battle through the intensity of his own troubles.

At some point after the taping of that July 2018 episode, Alsina’s easy confidence and tight-lipped reverence for Jada had seemingly changed. In October 2018, he released a cover of Kanye West’s “Wouldn’t Leave,” which details his disappointment over a romantic relationship with a woman who is not entirely available to him, a woman he knows “wouldn’t leave” her partnership with someone else. In December 2018, his sister died and he became the primary caretaker of her three daughters, even as he was diagnosed with a genetic liver disease. In March 2019, Alsina released a song called “Nunya,” which seemed to drop hints at the nature of his relationship with Jada; the song’s video presents its lyrics as a text message thread between Alsina and someone named “Koren,” who has a broken-heart emoji next to her name. The lyrics depict a former flame checking in with Alsina, asking him why he’s ignoring her: “You’re just an actress, putting on a show / ’Cause you don’t want the world to know,” Alsina sings. Koren is Jada’s middle name, and a GIF of her in a scene from the 1995 comedy A Low Down Dirty Shame appears in the video at the moment the “actress” lyric pops up onscreen. Alsina’s interview with Yee was the culmination of the singer’s several savvy sleight-of-hand flirtations with the expression of his truth.

And now the blockbuster Red Table Talk episode appears to be inaugurating a new moment in both Smiths’ careers. With over 15 million viewers in a 24-hour span, the conversation has quickly become the most-viewed episode on Facebook Watch. Notably, the episode broke a record previously held by Red Table Talk for its scoop interview with Jordyn Woods, filmed only a day after the Tristan Thompson scandal broke in March 2019. The word “entanglement” has become a meme, rivaling Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin’s “conscious uncoupling” as celebrity euphemism, or even doublespeak term du jour. Erykah Badu jokingly advertised an “Entanglement”-themed edition of “Badu Pussy,” her vagina-inspired incense. Other celebrities, like 50 Cent and comedian Michael Blackson, posted faux direct message threads humorously doctored to appear as if they’re texting with Will, while Black Twitter scrutinized the situation, as the actor pointed out in the Red Table Talk interview.

In keeping with the seemingly immediate mode of delivery, the public’s response to the Smiths’ unconventional interview has been laceratingly direct. Images of Will’s face flooded the internet with remarks about the presumption of his pain, comparing his physical appearance on Red Table Talk with the bedraggled looks of his Hancock and The Pursuit of Happyness characters. The “Sad Will Smith” is an official topic on Know Your Meme. USA Today called Will’s reaction image “the 2020 version of the Crying Jordan meme.” Once upon a time, Will Smith memes featured his heroic characters from movies that had raked in obscene amounts of money, or his comical Fresh Prince of Bel-Air scenes. In the meantime, Jada has gone from a character actor to a budding media mogul. How have their fortunes diverged so dramatically?

In an August 1996 Ebony cover story, on the cusp of the release of Independence Day, prolific Ebony profiler Lynn Norment summarized Will’s trajectory up until that point:

Yes, life is good for Will Smith, whose meteoric rise to stardom began in high school when he released his debut rap album. While still learning the ropes of the music business, he got his own television comedy series. And after a few successful seasons, he began to star in movies. There was never a period of struggle or doubt or failure. Every project he has touched has turned to gold.

The piece is something of a time capsule: When detailing his decision to leave The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and questioning whether he’d ever return to television, Will calls the medium “designed for mediocrity,” whereas “when you’re making a film, you have more of an opportunity to achieve aesthetic perfection, or as close to that as you can get.” Norment details his heroic turn in Independence Day (1996) and the in-production Men in Black (1997), and then gets to the real subject of the profile: Will’s burgeoning relationship with Jada Pinkett. Norment called him Jada’s “hero-prince.”

Will explained his connection with his girlfriend of two years, saying, “She’s very in touch with her emotions, which allows me to be in touch with mine. She helps me deal with everything that I have to deal with. She makes everything okay. No matter how difficult it gets, she always has something kind to say, or a warm hug, or she’ll cry with you if you feel like crying. But she’ll also punch somebody in the face if they do something to me.” Later in the profile, he said, “My no. 1 attraction to Jada is intellectual. She’s just someone whom I can talk to about anything. I’ve never been able to step outside of my maleness to share myself with someone. She’s the first person with whom I’ve been able to break that down.” It seems like even in 1996, Will was publicly thanking Jada for the kind of traits that have now made her and Red Table Talk household names.

That framing of Jada, somewhere between seductive and outspoken, aligns with the ways Black women have been traditionally conceived in American media.  

In another Ebony feature from December of that year, called “What Jada Wants, Jada Gets,” Jada was already being compared to Will. The title of the profile, which references “Whatever Lola Wants,” the famous Damn Yankees song about a tempting, slightly dangerous seductress, hints at the ways the press looked at her. That framing of Jada, somewhere between seductive and outspoken, aligns with the ways Black women have been traditionally conceived in American media, beginning with antebellum narratives that framed the rape of Black women as consensual relationships between enslavers and “bed wenches,” and, on the other end of the spectrum, as domineering, emasculating killjoys who drove Black men away. The contrast between the ways Jada was framed in profiles about Will (a supportive helpmate) versus his presence in stories about her (a constant point of comparison) is extremely telling for the ways in which even the Black media positioned the couple.

In her ’96 Ebony profile, Jada explained the differences between the way that the public viewed her in comparison to Will. “People see me as a hard woman,” she said. “Will transcends race. Everybody loves Will… And that is the absolute opposite of people when they think about me.” The profile writer Aldore D. Collier suggests this discrepancy is because of her screen roles. Pinkett situated the difference in their candor:

I’m outspoken and more threatening. In my life I’m a very out-spoken individual. Sometimes in this business, it’s still that old-fashioned attitude that women should be seen and not heard. I’m not one of those people. If I’m in your presence, you’re going to hear me. That tends to be irritating to some people. Overall, people judge Will from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, and they judge me from Jason’s Lyric and Menace. People look at us and go, “Oh, God, they’re so opposite.”

It would seem that the press picked up on this perceived dichotomy too. In 1999, Ebony called Will “affable,” “articulate,” and someone who “hates bad grammar.” The following year, Eminem made fun of Will on his song “The Real Slim Shady,” cementing Will’s pop culture image as slightly corny, a perception that has been prevalent in certain corners of hip-hop culture ever since Will and DJ Jazzy Jeff won the first Grammy for Best Rap Performance in 1989, beating out more aesthetically influential rappers like LL Cool J and Kool Moe Dee in the process.

Juxtaposed against her husband, Jada was irreverent and not as popular in the mainstream and therefore not as reticent to speak her mind. Jada, who was a close friend of Tupac Shakur’s since childhood, gave her husband an edge, even when she took more of a backseat both privately and publicly. In the 1996 Ebony story, she shared Will’s advice that she appear in at least one film a year, but expressed concerns about that professional strategy if it interfered with her personal plans. She explained that when she had children, she planned to be a full-time mother to them, saying, “I don’t want to be one of those mothers who just drops kids off or has a live-in nanny. If I had a child, it’s going to be 24 hours a day, seven days a week. That’s my child, and I’m raising the child.”

In 1997, the Smiths married. A year later, Jaden, their first child together, was born. True to her word, Jada seemed to disappear into motherhood, although she would appear in at least one movie a year, from big-budget action flicks like The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions (2003), and Collateral (2004), to family-friendly animated features like Madagascar (2005).

In the mid-2000s, Jada shifted gears, fronting the metal band Wicked Wisdom. In a September 2004 Ebony profile pegged to her reemergence as a rock star, the magazine repeated the “Whatever Jada wants, Jada gets” labeling, opening that piece with a quote from the previous profile. The writer Joy Bennett Kinnon framed Jada’s attitude positively, describing her as a “petite powerhouse” who is “no pushover” and who has a “pragmatic if not downright pugnacious approach to the Hollywood game.” Jada explained that she had stopped working in entertainment for a few years in the late 1990s to raise her children (Willow was born in 2000) but also because she wasn’t offered quality roles, and expressed frustration at the extreme way women were portrayed in the scripts and films she saw: “I don’t like it when women are portrayed one way in movies. I don’t like super strong women, and I don’t like totally wimp women. All women wear many hats, so it’s very difficult to find roles that portray women as we really are.” After being asked why she wouldn’t just leave the industry, Jada said, “The industry thinks that this is like a hobby for me now, and it’s not. It’s a part of who I am. If I let this part of myself go — I die. Period. It’s that simple. It would be a spiritual death.”

The Ebony story also hinted at the mystique of the Smiths' relationship, calling it “one of the most exciting and unconventional Hollywood marriages.” “Neither Will nor Jada fit the idea of the conventional wife or husband,” Kinnon writes, “and that made for some rocky moments at the beginning of their marriage.” Capping off this thread, the writer notes that, “Jada says they both had to let go of the fantasy marriage and redefine what a wife and husband is for their relationship.”

In interviews over the years, Jada has spoken cryptically about their relationship dynamic. In a 2013 HuffPost Live interview, writer Marc Lamont Hill asked Jada if the open marriage rumors were true. She replied, “I’ve always told Will, ‘You can do whatever you want as long as you can look at yourself in the mirror and be okay. Because at the end of the day, Will is his own man. I’m here as his partner, but he is his own man. He has to decide who he wants to be and that’s not for me to do for him. Or vice versa.” In a 2014 interview with fashion site Net-a-Porter’s The Edit magazine, Jada told the publication, “We used to have all these rules, [but] as you go on in your relationship, you just get into a flow… I had a very stuck idea of what a husband looks like, what a wife should be. Once I broke all of that, a whole new world opened for me and man, oh, man, I got to see him in all his glory. And so that’s what it’s evolved into.” Maybe Jada’s openness and consistent talk of “redefinition,” “evolution,” “breaking rules,” and everyone being their own person helped stoke gossip about the couple, which migrated into criticism of her professional relationships. In the early 2010s, when the actress starred on Hawthorne, a TNT hospital drama, rumors swirled that she was having an affair with her costar Marc Anthony.

In the early 2010s, her children’s careers took off, and Jada supported them. She spent months in China with Jaden during the filming of 2010’s The Karate Kid remake, and went on tour with Willow to launch her daughter’s burgeoning music career. After the cancellation of Hawthorne in 2011, Jada appeared in three Madagascar films, took a small role in Magic Mike XXL (2015) and starred on Fox’s Gotham as villain Fish Mooney, but didn’t make a pronounced splash again until her costarring role in 2017’s Girls Trip, the first Black-led comedy to exceed $100 million at the box office. The buzz from Girls Trip helped her land Red Table Talk. I interviewed Jada, Willow, and Adrienne Banfield-Norris for a December 2018 Harper’s Bazaar cover story, and Jada explained that Red Table Talk had given her a professional restart. “I'm in my late 40s. This is the time that they send you out to pasture,” she told me then. "Don't let people tell you that you're too old. That it's over, 'cause that's a lie.”

In addition to restarting Jada ’s career — or resuscitating it, if you consider what she said about how not working in the industry amounted to spiritual death — the show has also changed the way we think about the Smiths as celebrities and movie stars. They are more vulnerable than they used to be.

Will’s first appearance on Red Table Talk came in the show’s first season in 2018 and inaugurated the couple’s new approach to media intrusion. In an episode called “Becoming Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” the first of a two-parter, the couple delved into some private moments of strife, demystifying some of their struggles. Will said, “For years and years there’s been a lot of speculation about us and our family have been very secretive … it’s been private.” He continued, “We have created a marital and family paradigm that has been speculated about for a lot of years, so I’m excited to sit down and tell the truth.”

In the second part, “Our Unique Union,” they discussed some of the issues they’d dealt with in their marriage and sought to clear up gossip. Jada asked, “So, Will, now that we’ve brought it to the table, are we concerned about all the beautiful rumors that will now stir up in the media?” Will replied, “We’ve never been Scientologists. We’ve never been swingers.” At the close of the show, Will celebrated Red Table Talk for giving Jada a platform to express herself, saying, “You have found something with this Red Table and this space that I tried my damndest to build for you, the space where you get to fully and honestly and thoroughly be you and to get all of the love and the praise that you deserve.” The revelations would continue. In a different Red Table Talk interview from 2018, she explained that they don’t call themselves married anymore, instead preferring the term “life partnership.” In a 2019 Red Table Talk interview with therapist and author Esther Perel, Jada explained that she felt that she’d “lost” herself in her marriage to Will.

This August Alsina scandal has demonstrated how the open marriage rumors have come to newly define the Smiths in the public arena. 

And now the red table is facilitating both joy and uncomfortable discourse. This August Alsina scandal has demonstrated how the open marriage rumors, which for a long time provided the only bit of tantalizing info about straitlaced Will, have come to newly define the Smiths in the public arena. For a while, the open marriage rumors were to Will what gambling rumors were to Michael Jordan — the odd bit of quirky information/gossip that made a somewhat milquetoast American icon more interesting. Jada has seemed to hold the keys to these rumors, with her ongoing disclosures of the unconventional nature of her marriage.

With her most recent one-on-one with Will, she's made their marriage public fodder in a more pronounced way. As she says in the episode, "The only person who can grant permission in that particular circumstance is myself.” She's talking about her sexual agency, but I also think that that statement could also explain the ways in which the Smith family's secrets are coming out into the world. Years ago, it was unthinkable for them to ever acknowledge the presence of other romantic partners in their relationship, but now the unthinkable has happened. This new approach, involving the entire family, is being led by Jada. Her newfound candor ultimately serves the media empire she's building.

For years, however, Will Smith was the most famous member of his family. He was, after all, one of Hollywood’s most bankable stars, one who admitted his own obsession with being the biggest movie star. On Christmas Eve 2017, Will joined Instagram, which has resulted in a different kind of stardom, that of a “celebrity influencer.” Will's openness on social media has definitely coincided with his diminishing box office power, but it still functions to keep the narrative about him intact. A January 2020 article in The Independent, which chronicled Will’s box office disappointments, questioned whether or not he is “the king of weaponized nostalgia.” Whether or not that nostalgia has been “weaponized,” it does seem to now be a core facet of Will’s public-facing self. The Instagram clips of him rapping, playing basketball on the set of Bad Boys 3, performing his first stand-up set, dancing with his daughter, riding in a hot air balloon, or skydiving support the image of Will Smith that we've always known: a cool, funny, and benign star.

At first, it appeared that the entire Red Table Talk enterprise had threatened that image, somewhat, but maybe it’s actually saved it. In a 2016 interview at the Cannes Film Festival, Will said, referring to his recent string of both critical and box office failures, that he would be “making the shift from product to people.” Doing so, in his view, would lead to better work. “I am trusting that if I have a deeper comprehension of people, the product I create is going to be more successful.” Red Table Talk, at its core, is a talk show about unpacking controversial ideas, but mostly it’s interested in people, in newsmakers driving cultural conversations. And now Will is one of them.

The Smiths’ evolving drama feels like a deviation from our usual celebrity programming, even in the age of Instagram Lives and Notes app apologies. Oddly enough, it has managed to make even the direct-to-fan engagement model of Instagram seem cold. Kevin Hart’s admission of infidelity in 2017, which he delivered in a video posted to Instagram, seems highly tactical and controlled by comparison, in part because we never hear from any of the other parties involved in the scandal. Beyoncé and Jay Z’s relationship issues, first unfurled in notorious elevator footage, were later weaved into their music, in a suite of highly produced records, years after the elevator incident made headlines. While the “entanglement” the Smiths discussed has been over for years, according to everyone involved, the potential embarrassment of Alsina’s admission is still fresh. According to Page Six, the couple decamped with Willow to the Bahamas for a vacation after the Red Table Talk conversation was taped. Maybe it was a well-needed trip for the family, after a stressful monthslong hunkering down in LA, where they’ve been reportedly quarantining — but celebrity vacations, from those taken by Bill O’Reilly, Tucker Carlson, and others have been traditionally used to put space between famous people and their scandals.

The Red Table Talk interview has also disrupted the delivery mechanism of salacious news. Although the Smiths’ individual representatives had previously denied Alsina’s claims, essentially gaslighting him, the couple contradicted those statements, basically undermining their own publicists. Without the filter of PR flacks, they’re also physically unvarnished: The Red Table interview presents the Smiths in a more laid-back fashion than most people have ever seen them; wearing jeans and Adidas flip-flops, the couple is refreshingly out of red carpet drag.

Of course, Red Table Talk is a media product. For as much as the conversation covered, it has also obscured. The public still doesn’t have a sense of when exactly Jada’s relationship with Alsina turned romantic, or the exact nature of why Will was “done” with her. There were also some (appropriately?) corny moments, like when the couple punctuated their conversation with a remixed version of Will’s slogan from the Bad Boys franchise: “We ride together, we die together, bad marriage for life!” and a fist bump. Although reality stars like Love and Hip Hop’s Lyrica G and her husband, A1, and Ray J and his wife, Princess Love, have recently taken to Zeus, an emerging entertainment platform, to air one-on-one chats about their troubled marriages, the Smiths’ Red Table Talk marks the first time an A-list couple has attempted to share their foibles with the public in such a format.

Although their conversation was still heavily mediated, as every talk show is, the circumstances of Will and Jada’s conversation are refreshingly direct; the seams of the traditional industry machinations don’t seem to show as much. At 13 minutes long, it’s not overly drawn out, or filled with commercial break cliff-hangers; there’s no audience of even Willow or Adrienne to get reaction shots from. If it weren’t for the self-referential nature of their dialogue, and the cameras, their conversation would seem like something you’d hear from a couple having breakfast. Will’s comment, "I wasn't sure I was ever going to speak to you again. Like the fact that I'm speaking to you again is a miracle. [Marriage] ain't for the weak at heart,” suggests some deep pain that has been worked over.

But then there’s also the gendered dynamic of the controversy. Not since Safaree Samuels appeared on The Breakfast Club in 2015 to unpack the end of his relationship with Nicki Minaj have the gendered stereotypes associated with committed relationships been flipped so dramatically. On The Joe Budden Podcast, cohost Mal Clay claimed Alsina looked like “a widow” in his interview with Angela Yee. There’s a reason why “Sad Will Smith” is a meme and “Confessing Jada” is not; people glom onto the bigger star, and the most ostensibly empathetic figure. And for a lot of people, Will is the aggrieved party, not Jada, even though a private romantic relationship was revealed to the public without her consent, and even though Alsina has been teasing his reveal for the past few years in ever-scintillating music.

Will himself has subtly contributed to this gender-inverted reading of the sexual scandal. “I feel like that husband, like, I’m with you at the press conference,” Will said to Jada in the episode, with slightly red eyes. “I’m that husband. Now I gotta be with you at the press conference while you, like, tell the world about your transgressions,” he said, with humorous emphasis placed on that last word. “Like, ‘I love my baby, I’ma stand by my baby no matter what,’” he said in the simping voice of a “stand by your man” stereotype, and guffawed heartily like he used to on The Fresh Prince. For a second, it seemed like he was gaining control of the interview, especially when Jada laughed at his impression. But then she replied, transitioning from humor to something heavier: “Well, I know, I definitely understand why it would look that way or feel that way, but I actually don’t look at it as a transgression at all. Through that particular journey, I learned so much about myself and was able to really confront a lot of emotional immaturity, emotional insecurity, and I was really able to do some really deep healing.”

That sequence from the interview is reminiscent of Will’s statement from that 1996 Ebony profile: “I’ve never been able to step outside of my maleness to share myself with someone. She’s the first person with whom I’ve been able to break that down.” In 2020, in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement, it would seem that a macho movie hero being able to “step outside of his maleness” would be rewarded.

Yet, the familiar narrative of the oversexed, emasculating black woman has shown up here, again. Twitter commenters have even been questioning whether or not Will is a cuckold. In this vein, Will’s remark that Jada “didn’t know if [he] had the girth to ride with [her]” throughout the ups and downs of their marriage, has been widely parodied, with emphasis on the misuse of “girth,” which usually has a sexual connotation. And there is a tinge of the “Whatever Jada wants” in the conversations taking place online, positioning her as a seductress/MILF figure who took advantage of a young man in pain. It’s hard to suss out those allegations, since the precise timeline of Jada and Alsina’s relationship is not available.

There has been rampant criticism from Twitter users about whether or not Jada groomed Alsina or exploited him at a time when he was recovering from his addiction, or unfairly entered into a romantic relationship with him given the huge power differential in their relationship, with respect to age, influence, and wealth. For his part, Alsina has not spoken about the relationship as abusive, and in his recent Vulture interview, said, “Nobody preyed on me or was a predator towards me.” But in the memes of Jada photoshopped onto notorious playboy Future’s body, and in the way her sexuality has been joked about, especially in the notion of entanglement-themed vagina incense, it’s hard to know if that part of the narrative will ever be truly evaluated in the public. There’s also a double standard in the fact that amid the Alsina conversations, and the Smiths’ inside joke in the latest Red Table Talk discussion about Will “getting [Jada] back,” there have been fewer mentions of the tabloid rumors about Will’s alleged affairs with Margot Robbie, who was 23 when they were shooting Focus (2015) and Heidy De la Rosa, a model who was in her late twenties at the time.

Red Table Talk is a media product. For as much as the conversation covered, it has also obscured. 

Throughout this scandal, I've been reminded of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis, a couple the Smiths have publicly praised as a model of marriage between successful black creatives. But Will and Jada have also spoken about the impact of the couple’s open relationship on their own union. The relationships between Dee and Davis and the Smiths are examples of progressive, wayward sexuality, as defined by scholar Saidiya Hartman, “ungendering,” as explored by the scholar Hortense Spillers, and not heteronormative, if viewed within the context of sociologist Cathy J. Cohen’s ideas about the contradictions of heteronormativity within Black life.

In her most recent book, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, and in an LA Review of Books interview, Hartman addresses “the gender nonconforming and sexual variant character of Black intimacy.” She has articulated the inherent “queerness” of Black sexuality, as it applies in America. Even when Black couples are in committed, straight relationships, those unions are not heteronormative, because heteronormativity is imposed from the outside, and Black people have rarely been seen as normative in American society, and neither has their intimacy and sexuality. Before the Obamas, the Smiths were arguably the most visible Black couple in the world. (When Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, the only interview he did about the award was with the Smiths.) Jada’s choices seem to demonstrate an interest in more imaginative narratives, and in doing so, an embrace of that waywardness.

But it’s worth noting that Jada herself tends to stray away from declarative political stances. In my 2018 interview with her, she rerouted a question I asked Willow, about whether or not she’d vote, to herself, explaining that she did not want to talk about that: “I just want you to know why we've pushed back on politics. It’s because we take a lot of pride at the Red Table where we really try to deal with issues of the heart and issues of self-awareness and development. We really focus more on what's going on internally versus externally.” Now, it seems, the internal issues of the heart have become incredibly politicized, as anything to do with black sexuality tends to. I wonder if, and how, she might use her Red Table Talk platform to discuss the political ramifications of the ways in which her private, intimate relationships have been made so very public. In the many statements she’s made over the years, of being “lost” in her relationship, of “breaking rules,” of her varied “entanglements,” Jada’s words strongly echo Hartman’s definition of waywardness, and how it might be the key to living authentically amid constant appraisal from the public and the press:

Waywardness articulates the paradox of cramped creation, the entanglement of escape and confinement, flight and captivity… To claim the right to opacity. To strike, to riot, to refuse. To love what is not loved. To be lost to the world… Waywardness is a practice of possibility at a time when all roads, except the ones created by smashing out, are foreclosed. It obeys no rules and abides no authorities.

Although Hartman’s words speak to the range of Black social life, from the period of enslavement until now, I wonder how a more particular area of Black American experience — celebrity life — might figure into this definition. What did it mean for the Smiths to represent a “wayward” Black sexuality in the years when they were the primary representatives of American Blackness? I’m also curious about how Jada and Will could continue to embody all of the meanings, now that this aspect of their private life is out in the open, and now that, due to this latest disclosure, there might be less of an impetus to escape the assumptions and comments of the public, tabloid press, and even the paparazzi.

August Alsina has complicated what is already an untidy, unruly image of marriage and companionship. How does he fit in? In his Vulture interview, he described himself in similar “wayward” fashion: “People have all these ideas about who people are, and what’s possible, and what’s impossible. I believe the possibilities are endless. People may not like that about me, and I get it, cause everybody lives within these confines and constructs.” Does smashing out include trampling on the feelings of others? Amid the entanglements of celebrity and private life, of gender and sexual variance (and even the possibly problematic knots of age and power differentials), the Smiths appear to be bucking a trend. In a 2015 interview with the Screen Actors Guild, Jada summarized this tendency:

“One of the purposes of why I became an artist is to have the opportunity to break boundaries,” she said. “It’s one of the things I really enjoy, being able to use art in a way in which to break those boundaries and break out of those boxes that we create for ourselves and others create for us.” ●

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