"We accept the reality of the world with which we're presented. It's as simple as that."
The above quote is from The Truman Show, the satirical psychological comedy-drama starring a prime Jim Carrey. In the movie, the life of protagonist Truman Burbank is the subject of a television show, live-broadcasted daily, with every aspect of his existence guided by producers and a part of a massive set—and he doesn't know it. The movie explores how the media manipulates and manufactures reality. Though this allegory appropriately represents society's inextricable entanglement with social media, The Truman Show hit the big screen in 1998. Surprisingly enough, in the year prior, we all found ourselves on the set of a similar production: The Will & Jada Show.
Fan or not, one would have to be wholly disconnected from celebrity happenings to be unaware of what's been transpiring in the Smith household. For the last three years, the Smith family has been the subject of major media headlines, barbershop and salon debates, and comment section gender wars. Not for any new movies or shows but because of their personal lives. The apparent crumbling of their marriage and the slow, gradual dissolution of their reputation.
In 2014, J. Cole rapped on “No Role Modelz” (a title that is now eerily ironic): "I want a real love/Dark-skinned Aunt Viv love/That Jada and that Will love." With the way we watched them publicly profess their support and undying love for one another, we never imagined we'd see their Hall of Fame jersey fall from the rafters of relationship goals. Unbeknownst to us, we weren't witnessing the collapse of a seemingly perfect marriage; we've been witnessing a production gone horribly wrong.
Much of our opinion is a mix of projection, personal experience and trauma, assumption, speculation, idealism, and valid points and criticism within an otherwise manufactured reality.
Up until 2020, the Smiths were damn-near perfect. Will was a talented, highly accomplished actor and rapper, sensitive yet confident, charming, and assertive—well-executed masculinity. He was expressive and seemed sincere, a man who loves and pours into his children and supports and adores his wife. Jada was also a talented actor and a beautiful woman who had the hearts and adorned the walls of many young men. She was the "it" girl. She loved her children, including Trey, her "bonus son." She sacrificed much of her professional career to open room for Will's and the children's special projects while finding time to pursue music with her metal band. She was soft-spoken with strong opinions.
The way they successfully co-parented with Will's ex-wife, Sharee, was a harmonious anomaly. The children were all beautiful, talented, and brilliant, all with their own distinct, endearing, and magnetic personalities. Although there was still the initial ridicule of being called corny or weird, on the other side of that came admiration and respect. Though they've battled rumors on everything from sexuality to extramarital affairs to Scientology to having an open relationship, those remained nothing more than trailing whispered gossip. Even when the music or movies flopped, they may have shuffled in popularity, but they never lost favor or position in our pantheon of Black love.
They were a beloved, fairytale family, and when they leveraged their celebrity to shield the young Black socialite and family friend Jordyn Woods—going toe-to-toe with the queen clan of Calabasas, the Kardashians, and winning—they were elevated from relationship, family, and co-parenting goals to Black royalty. But through the neon paisley-tinted lenses of our Smith family idealism, we all forgot something. We forgot that they are actors. We neglected to realize that much, if not all, of what we've seen is a performance, and that we are not family friends looking at familiar faces but the audience.
There's a pivotal scene in The Truman Show where Truman walks outside, and a large set light falls and shatters on the ground. Perplexed, he looks at the light, looks to the sky, and begins to do what we all should have done: question. Question the validity of this experience. Doing so would have revealed that we weren’t looking at a storybook come to life, but a meticulously manufactured reality.
Who are we watching? What are we watching? And how are we participating in all of it?
Just as the scene with the falling light was a set malfunction—a moment of truth—in 2020, we saw our first glitch in The Will & Jada Show broadcast: the entanglement. From the newest information released, with Jada saying she and Will had been separated, though not legally divorced, since 2016, her having a relationship with another man wasn't wrong and shouldn't have been a public spectacle of such magnitude. Still, someone forgot their cue and messed up the storyline. In an attempt to recover, Jada brought Will to the Red Table for "some healing," which was just them frantically trying to save the scene while failing in miserable, memeable fashion.
Is this their marriage? The audience questions.
Considering all the rumors and Hollywood whispers, Will and Jada presented—or performed—like an idyllic couple. Maybe it was us, the audience's desperate need to see something other than what we’d seen in our parents' or grandparents' marriages, or in our own hopeful yet unsuccessful attempts at love that made it so easy for everyone to cling to this image? When the entanglement broke the internet, it equally broke spirits, leaving many optimistic spectators with the reality of a marriage far too familiar to bear—one that's toxic, messy, dysfunctional, and unhappy.
From that moment, the internet was never the same. The entanglement laid the battleground for the ongoing gender war that, unfortunately, doesn't seem to have an end in sight. Men and women have been online in chats, threads, rooms, forums, on podcast couches, and major broadcast studios bashing, blaming, and calling each other everything but a child of God. Arguments are occurring, but no conversations are being had.
In moments when we can discuss marriage, relationship dynamics, ego, control, manipulation, accountability, not forcing a relationship, and figuring out how to love and be happy, we are litigating a case we know nothing about. We're more concerned with making someone the devil and the other an angel because it’s easier and it feels better, but this reductive black-and-white, perpetual-victim-consistent-villain binary isn’t how the world and relationships operate. Within any significant relationship, especially ones of considerable duration, there will be moments where each person adopts the role of villain or becomes the victim. The dynamism of being human has been removed because of what this public conversation means to us and the “sides” the involved individuals represent.
Humans have exalted celebrities since the beginning of time. But with Will and Jada, it's different. They've transcended the typical unhealthy parasocial relationships we develop with our favorite celebrities and have become our avatars. They've become figures that represent ourselves, our idealism, our aspirations, and, at the most simplistic level, our gender. So, when they fight, we fight—but we fight with the ghosts of our own experiences. We've removed Will and Jada, and through the darkness of our blinding memories we can only see the parts resembling our stories.
We see the woman we loved, but we weren't the him to her, no matter how much we tried. We see the man who wanted to control the relationship, construct it in his own image. We see one-sided, constant, public whipping—bearing the weight of blame and shame. We see our grandparents' unhappiness and pressures to smile through the misery. For him, for her, for the family, for tradition, for those who may be watching.
We're more concerned with making someone the devil and the other an angel because it’s easier and it feels better, but this reductive black-and-white, perpetual-victim-consistent-villain binary isn’t how the world and relationships operate.
Being a witness and participant in many conversations, with all the "y’alls" that litter the responses, you can tell it stopped being about Will and Jada long ago. Their relationship saga is reminiscent of Insecure, with the Issa and Lawrence hives at odds weekly. Although this scenario is supposed to be real, it is still very much scripted—an interactive, live-action reality show.
Will and Jada both adjusted their careers around the same time, with Will making his debut on Instagram in 2017 and Jada launching Red Table Talk on Facebook in 2018. In this transition, they went from actors to content creators and personal brands, and their supporters went from fans to followers, from art patrons to consumers. Regardless of the fact that The Truman Show was intended to be real life, the producers still had to place products and write commercials into its dialogue, no matter how contrived or out of place it sounded—the same with the Smiths. Since the explosion of the entanglement, there is always something that rides in tandem with the newly released tawdry, salacious, and often annoying information: a product.
When the entanglement exploded: Buy Will's new book.
Will does an interview: Buy Just Water.
More interviews and revelations: Watch Bel-Air on Peacock.
More shocking info: Go see King Richard at a theater near you.
When Jada comes back with a crazy plot twist—almost two years after the release of Will's book—that they've actually been separated for seven years: Buy Jada's new memoir, Worthy.
I'm not saying this was a premeditated marketing plan, but the pattern of storyline development and product rollout converging precisely has been both brilliant and disturbing.
Regardless of my personal thoughts and theories, I feel bad for both of them. In The Truman Show, a woman named Sylvia confronts the show producer and condemns it, saying, "He's not a performer, he's a prisoner." Will and Jada’s handcuffs may be Cartier and diamond encrusted, and they may be in a gilded, architecturally stunning cage, but they are still hostages to themselves, their fame, money, and image, and we've seen this existential crisis play out publicly over the last several years. Sometimes it comes out as a breakdown in character slap and sometimes it’s a public daydream, throwback memory of a long-gone soulmate.
When I hear Jada discuss her past moments of depression and unhappiness, I see a free spirit being confined, constricted to a box. When I hear Will talk about his insecurities or how he has to present a perfect image at all costs, I hear someone who doesn't know what it means to be themselves. In his appearance on the Rap Radar Podcast, he talked about being more real and authentic and "being himself," but that only resulted him cursing a little and drinking around his family at a birthday party—things an actor would do to "perform" authenticity, similar to Truman attempting to go somewhere out of norm but being unable to, yelling, "Someone help me, I'm being spontaneous!"
Will and Jada’s handcuffs may be Cartier and diamond encrusted, but they are still hostages to themselves, their fame, money, and image, and we've seen this existential crisis play out publicly over the last several years.
Many artists aim to make their names mean something, to represent something. But unfortunately, the names Will and Jada have become character names, disembodied from who they are internally and spiritually—marquee names that erased the human beings behind them. If you look through their interviews, they say a lot that we ignore. They flash their million-dollar smiles, give charismatic, well-thought-out responses, and have fluttering moments of truth, a morse code trying to get our attention.
So what next for The Will & Jada Show?
Although they have both expressed that they would never divorce, the climax and resolution in this production can easily be them finally agreeing to the big split, which will lead to a lot of interviews and IG posts about "finally accepting our truth" (whatever that would mean) or something about being partners for life and escaping the internal chains that kept them in bondage to a reality not of their desires. A lot of inspirational messages and appearances. Maybe a speaking tour. Maybe seasons three and four of Bel-Air. Maybe a co-authored book entitled "Us" or something minimalistic yet poignant.
I don't know. And that's the greatest thing I've realized through this entire debacle. We don't know. We don't know these people, their lives, or their marriage. We've only gotten their curated information, intermittent fleeting moments of honesty, heavy scripted reality, and expertly executed marketing strategy. Much of our opinion is a mix of projection, personal experience and trauma, assumption, speculation, idealism, and valid points and criticism within an otherwise manufactured reality. We are a disillusioned audience who thought they were watching a documentary, learning that what we saw was only based on a true story.
All we can do is eat our popcorn, drink our Coke Zero, and enjoy the show. Then, argue about it in the parking lot after the credits roll.