“Memory is not a flawless recording of what actually happened. It’s not a video of your experience. It’s not even a photograph, it is your psychological, artistic rendering. It is more like an abstract impressionist painting of what happened than it is a pure, unﬁltered depiction. Sometimes you add color to a memory that weren’t there a year ago, ﬁve years ago, or even collapse multiple memories and them into one.”
This is the perspective of Willard Carroll Smith II, “of West Philadelphia, born and raised,” on Sept. 25, 1968. One of the most successful Hollywood box ofﬁce superstars of his generation and simply known as Will Smith. But before Hollywood came a-calling, or the Grammys with a historic win, he was the “Fresh Prince” and his memoir released late last year, “WILL,” by Penguin Press, is an introspective experience that dissects the evolution of the man, the Hip Hop icon, the television star, and the global ﬁlm mammoth. Many times, the evolution of the latter three interfered with Will Smith, the man.
Calling himself “delusional” “a dreamer” and “a coward,” Will Smith sets the tone of his childhood with Willard Carroll Smith Sr., known as “Daddio,’” who was dishonorably discharged from the Air Force because of anger management issues, and his wife, schoolteacher Carolyn Elaine Bright, affectionately called “Mom-Mom.” It is the relationship between his parents that created the ultimate lenses through which Will would learn to navigate relationships. As many children who grow up in households where domestic violence dominates the landscape, the feelings of helplessness, fear, despair, anger and frustration inhabited the psyche of a young impressionable Will.
SENSE OF INADEQUACY
“I watched my father’s negative emotions seize control of his ample intellect and cause him over and over again destroy the beautiful parts of our family,” Smith remembers. The anger and subsequent violence created a sense of inadequacy in Will that fostered the need to be a people pleaser, and ultimately, a performer.
“As a child, I told myself that I kept Daddio entertained and made him laugh then he wouldn’t hurt my mother. But that fantasy only caused me to feel like a coward, and unworthy son, despite the fact that none of it was my fault,” Smith explained. It is the exhaustive feelings of inadequacy that Will felt in not being able to physically save his mother from the abusive hands of his father, and the anger of being incapable to cap the lid of his father’s deep-seated fury, forced him to retreat deep inside of himself. A yearning developed within Will to be loved and seen. “Make believe is a normal part of psychological development,” Smith writes, “but as we start to grow up, we start to let go of our fantasy life simply because we discover that living in the real world is more valuable to us than clinging to our fantasies. But for some reason I didn’t go through that process.”
Will’s destiny collides with reality when he ﬁrst hears Grandmaster Caz and the Cold Crush Brothers’ “Yvette” at the age of 13 on a mix tape. It was the illuminative way Grandmaster Caz wove a story within a rap that caught Will’s attention and shaped his own style. The moniker “Fresh Prince” was born at Overbrook High School where Will was involved in ‘battling’ other young MCs and after being involved in several local Hip Hop groups, Will meets fate.
Fate would be Jeffrey Townes, DJ Jazzy Jeff. Townes successfully survived Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after being diagnosed at the age of 15 and spent tremendous amounts of time in his parents’ basement “listening to everything from John Coltrane and Charlie Mingus to Stevie Wonder and James Brown. Everyone called him “Jazz” because of his ability to seamlessly blend complex jazz tunes with modern funk, disco, or hip hop rhythms. Eventually that got extended to “Jazzy Jeff.”
Hip Hop history was literally made within a year when “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble” and then “Parents Just Don’t
Understand.” Will would make millions. Will would soon owe the IRS millions. However, it is his drive to succeed that pushes Will even at his lowest. It is that drive that sees him step out on faith and move to L.A. to seek fortune and fame. A chance meeting with an executive named Benny Medina at The Arsenio Hall Show leads to an impromptu meeting at Quincy Jones’ home. An on-thespot audition wins Will the coveted role in a new NBC series. That series would be named after him… “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.”
LOVE AND JADA
While the success of being a Hip Hop artist and a television star is accelerating and invigorating, it is the man, it is Willard Carroll Smith II that faces the toughest of challenges…relationships. Smith saw the demise of his ﬁrst marriage to Sheree Zampino, a young woman he met while attempting to meet and impress future love, Jada Pinkett, on the set of “A Different World.” The same patterns and feelings of insecurity compounded the issues of Will’s ﬁrst marriage coupled with the pressures of ascending in Hollywood created marital difﬁculties after the birth of his ﬁrst child, son Willard Carroll Smith III, Trey. The pursuit to ﬁll the pained heart of that little boy from West Philadelphia with love, happiness and acceptance bled into Smith’s second marriage to Jada Pinkett, which crumbled underneath the weight of the emotional baggage that he carried like a talisman. With every Hollywood record broken and milestone accomplished, “I was trying to ﬁll an emotional hole with external, material achievements,” Smith explained further. “Ultimately, this kind of obsession is insatiable.”
What Will Smith does rather well in his memoir, “WILL,” is explain personally how growing up in a household structure founded upon anger and violence has devastating affects upon impressionable children that they carry into adulthood. No matter how successful “The Fresh Prince” was or how many box ofﬁce records Will Smith, the movie star, broke around the world, it was Willard Carroll Smith II, the husband, ex-husband, parent and co-parent, son, brother and friend that needed to show up in real life. Showing up meant leaving behind the feelings of shame, cowardice, anger, and hopelessness. The journey to this realization takes up the last act of this memoir which leads to a full reconciliation with wife Jada, and a change in how he parents and shows up for his three children: Trey, Jaden and Willow.
This is the underlying thread of “WILL.” It takes the reader on an unforgettable journey of self-discovery that is worth the time spent. It unlocks the intentional man that Will Smith is, and peels back the many layers that created and sustained this still history making pioneer.