Maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.
Everyone remembers where they were when a “notably intoxicated” Kanye West stormed the Grammy’s stage in 2009 to declare the whole awards show racist. Snatching the spotlight from a notably uncomfortable Taylor Swift, West declared Beyonce the true winner of the VMA award for Best Video.
The episode was enough to land Kanye West, who had been, “photographed on the red carpet before the show, drinking cognac straight out of the bottle,” in rehab for alcohol addiction.
Over a decade later, however, and the Grammys are almost universally acknowledged as racist. Though he was lampooned and condemned at the time, the Kanye-as-bellwether isn’t the first time artists have forced society to confront uncomfortable truths long before society was ready for it.
When Sinead O’Conner dramatically tore up a photograph of the Pope during her performance on Saturday Night Live in 1992, the resulting controversy all but ended her career. The sexual abuse crisis O’Connor was protesting with her act of shocking defiance would, some years later, shake the Catholic Church to its foundation. The fallout continues to undermine the church to this very day, O’Connor long forgotten.
Pushing the envelope of what is socially acceptable has long been the territory of the artist; protesting- loudly, controversially, and often very inconveniently- is another.
Sometimes these social provocateurs use their art to make a statement.
When rappers like Ice-T and Master P made music about killing cops and wound up the subject of a Congressional sub-committee hearing, along with artists from heavy metal and rock genres, the “Parental Advisory” label was born.
But attempts to completely censor something that probably was contributing to a rise in the on-duty deaths of police officers, ultimately failed- which is good, because that was a feeble attempt to shoot the messenger anyway.
What lawmakers should have been asking, was why Black rappers from the inner cities were making art about murdering police officers in the first place. The complex answer to that question might have put legislators on a path to correct the underlying issues of generational poverty, racism, gang violence, over-policing, and the school to prison pipeline that still plague society today.
Those threats to society posed a far greater danger- as indeed the intervening decades have proved- than a few rap songs, however violent.
Even when celebrities and people in the public eye act out in ways that are shocking, dangerous or socially unacceptable, it is sometimes indicative of a bigger, underlying problem.
In their propaganda campaigns against the United States, rouge governments like North Korea and geopolitical opponents like China often use a grain of truth to condemn the Western world. For instance, Kim Jong Un routinely accuses the U.S. of murdering its celebrities; Michael Jackson, Prince, Whitney Houston.
In truth, that grim list grows everyday. American society doesn’t murder celebrities, not exactly, but Hollywood frequently chews its creators up and spits them out, treating them like commodities to be exploited and little more.
Admittedly, movie stars like Will Smith live in a fishbowl, under tremendous, unceasing public pressure plus all the usual slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. On one hand, Hollywood’s elite are obscenely wealthy. On the other, some of them are forced to wear the exact same outfit everyday in order to thwart photogs waiting behind every bush with a telescopic lens.
If the celebrity looks the same in every photograph, it makes the pics worthless.
What happens to our elites in Hollywood is a microcosm of what happens to the rest of us, albeit somewhat less glamorously.
Celebrities abuse drugs and alcohol, just like too many others in America. Celebs fall victim to addiction. They get divorced, lose their jobs, lose their minds, get sick, break the law, experience the grief of losing a loved one, embarrass themselves and redeem themselves- just like everyone else.
Having fame and fortune doesn’t insulate from heartbreak and loss.
Usually when a celebrity lashes out or gets caught doing something embarrassing- Britney Spears, Lindsey Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Paris Hilton, Reese Witherspoon, Winona Ryder, Hugh Grant, Johnny Depp, Corey Feldman- it is indicative of a deeper, more serious problem, sometimes it’s even a cry for help.
Seeing Will Smith become the latest major celebrity to join the freakout club- Smith hit comedian Chris Rock in the face during a live broadcast of the Oscars on Sunday after the latter made a joke about Smith’s wife- is a good reminder for everyone else that anyone- anyone, no matter how rich or famous or accomplished, or respected or well-liked- can make a mistake in a weak moment, can act on impulse against their own self-interest.
We’re living in the era of the post-celebrity tell-all. In their own words, triumphant survivors of these episodes- Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Cash, Jessica Simpson, Russell Brand- often go on to tell us all exactly what happened. Their stories of overcoming mental health issues and addiction- about how they got the help they needed and survived to continue making great art- are an inspiration to us all.
One of the biggest struggles in society, often exemplified in celebrity gossip magazines, is something that gets very little attention.
Fentanyl is a terrible, deadly blight on humanity. Heroin has taken many talented people too soon from the ranks of musicians, actors and artists. The mass casualty event caused by prescription opioids over the past two decades undermines the case for trusting pharmaceutical companies, however inconvenient the timing from a public health perspective.
The American alcohol abuse crisis may be worse. It is a slow-burn. Alcohol addiction doesn’t usually kill quickly like fentanyl; it isn’t a controlled substance like heroin; but for far too many people, the insidiousness of alcohol abuse and addiction is more than sufficient to ruin a life.
The lasting impact of so many Americans using alcohol to cope during the worst periods of Covid19 has only begun to rear its ugly head.
Even if the “only” thing Will Smith was doing the night of the Oscars was drinking too much, it was obviously more than enough to be worrisome. Not only is getting visibly drunk at the Oscars socially acceptable, it’s what all the cool kids are always doing on those programs. Smith’s behavior, however inappropriate and wrong, was deeply revealing of Hollywood’s toxic alcohol problem, at the very least.
Consider: More Americans than usual might have resisted the urge to self-medicate with alcohol over the last two years by opting instead to see their mental health professional about anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medication.
If so, many patients are often unprepared for the effect some prescription medications can have when mixed with even a small or moderate amount of alcohol. Smith may have been one of the millions of Americans who have found, to their cost, that the relatively new phenomenon of mixing prescription pills with alcohol can have unexpectedly strong side effects.
Worse, not enough people are getting the support and help they need. Many Americans are uninsured or underinsured and lack access to resources. Others still are constrained by social and cultural pressure, trained never to ask for or expect help.
If you know any school-age children enrolled in public school, ask them: “Are you kids getting any mental health support in school? You, know- to help you deal with the shut-downs, mandates, masking, separation and uncertainty?”
Brace yourself for the hard, cold answer: “No.”
No: Not even the most vulnerable among us- young people lacking a fully-developed social and mental framework, whose brains and bodies are still growing- are getting the support they need during these difficult times.
And if they aren’t, no one is. Not even Will Smith.
The most important thing we can do for ourselves, and for each other, is to make it ok to ask for help. Check in with each other; don’t be afraid to reach out to acquaintances who seem to be floundering. And don’t judge them too harshly; not even Will Smith.
“Always be kind,” said Mother Teresa; “for everyone is fighting a hard battle.”
Even Will Smith.
(contributing writer, Brooke Bell)