February 24, 2024

It may be time for Jada Pinkett Smith to bring herself back to the red table.

For years now, the actress and personality — known for movies like “Set It Off” and “Girls Trip,” as well as for her high-profile marriage to Will Smith and family life — has traded on a sort of tactical openness. “Red Table Talk,” a streaming series in which she, her daughter Willow Smith, and her mother Adrienne Banfield-Norris discuss personal matters, has, from its 2018 launch to its leaving Facebook Watch and going on hiatus earlier this year, helped rebrand a performer already recognized for her flair and edge as a say-almost-everything matriarch. And the vivid public life of Will Smith — including his dishy 2021 memoir “Will” and his turbulent 2022 Oscar night — has kept Jada’s name in headlines, too. 

Now, though, Pinkett Smith seeks to thread a very narrow needle: Correcting a record that she has helped to establish in the first place. Her publicity blitz around her forthcoming memoir “Worthy,” to be released Oct. 17, has been a lengthy announcement that much of what we know about her is wrong. That’s an interesting space to carve out for a star who has, for years now, been seizing the means of production. “Red Table Talk,” for instance, is produced by the Smith family’s Westbrook company. What we know about Pinkett Smith — including what she’s now announcing as misperceptions and half-truths — we know because she’s told us. 

Take her announcement, for instance, that she and Will Smith have been separated since 2016. This seems like a bombshell, not least because, as recently as 2020, the pair were breaking down the fissures in their relationship, and how they got past them, in a much-discussed “Red Table Talk” episode. Still more recently, Pinkett Smith was sitting by Smith’s side as his Oscar date when he took the stage to slap presenter Chris Rock. (For those who’ve forgotten, Pinkett Smith was the subject of an untoward joke by Rock; Smith later used his tear-streaked speech to declare that “love will make you do crazy things.”) Pinkett Smith has told interviewer Hoda Kotb on “Today” that she was “shocked” to hear Smith call her his wife as he screamed at Rock, “because, mind you, I’m not there.” But she was, in one sense, there — as the public-facing date of the man to whom she remains legally married. And right up to that point, the pair had avidly and eagerly used media to discuss a marriage that apparently did not exist. Pinkett Smith is likely not the only one who’s confused!

But grant her this much: Pinkett Smith really does seem confused, and not just about what happened the night of The Slap. This performer may have over-learned a certain lesson from “Red Table Talk” and from the blessed-until-it-was-cursed “King Richard” Oscar campaign. The idea that the Will-and-Jada coupling is so inherently interesting to people that they’ll consume anything about it — and, this way, help spin money for the family through “Red Table Talk,” both partners’ memoirs, and their other endeavors — rests upon the idea that there is, ultimately, a knowable truth. It can be kept tantalizingly just out of reach, as when the couple talked around and through Pinkett Smith’s dalliance with the singer August Alsina at the red table in 2020. They seemed, there, like honest brokers — why they wanted to open up their lives, who could say? But they were making a real show of being open. 

But a public that’s giving their time, attention, and money to entertainers who are making their private lives the story may be apt to get frustrated at the endless spiral of reversals on show here. Life is complicated, and feelings shift. Announcing that your previous gestures towards transparency were actually misdirections, and that this time, you’re finally ready to tell the real truth, is less compelling from the outside than it may feel to Pinkett Smith herself. That’s the tricky thing about centering your private life as the narrative: What to Pinkett Smith likely feels like the journey of a lifetime reads, from the outside, like a storyline that’s too confusingly told to hold our attention for much longer. 

To be clear: Pinkett Smith owes us nothing, and would probably be better off in many senses (if perhaps not financially) had the red table never existed. She’d probably be better off, too, had she let her work speak for itself, decided not to go to the Oscars with her estranged husband, or to go and let her silence speak, enigmatically, for itself for years to come. Those were all options available to her. And there’s something slightly peremptory, slightly irritating, about her declaring that we don’t know her at all, when for years, the audience has been consuming her revelations and insights. It may indeed be time for her to level with us from the red table — or, perhaps still better, it may be time to keep the red table in mothballs. Perhaps, with this memoir, Pinkett Smith has, for now, had her say. If there’s still another reversal to come, her fans can’t be blamed for stepping off the ride.

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