Ask any horror fan about Scream 2 and they’ll tell you that one of the most visceral and lasting moments, seared into their minds forever, was when Jada Pinkett Smith was stabbed to death in a movie theater by Ghostface, the masked killer of the Scream franchise. Ask anyone who grew up black in the ’90s and they’ll remember when Jada slid on a mask to “set it off” with her compatriots Queen Latifah, Vivica A. Fox, and Kimberly Elise. Jada had top billing in both of those movies. She is a film actress. Last night, however, a room full of Jada Pinkett Smith’s peers laughed together at a joke about how she “wasn’t invited” to the Oscars, as though she wasn’t worthy of being there.
Maybe Chris Rock wanted to punish Jada for speaking out about boycotting the Oscars, which many believe she only did because her husband Will was not nominated for Concussion. And maybe that was the case; we often don’t take up causes until they personally affect us. How many parents speak about not accepting gay people until they discover their own children are? How many people confront their past racism after finally becoming friends with people of color? Which is to say that it’s possible Jada took a stand because she loves her husband, and his exclusion from this year’s nominations was the final straw for her. If that’s the case … who cares? The why of her cause doesn’t make what she said any less important.
At the 2015 Emmy Awards, Viola Davis took the stage to accept her Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress, and then said this in her speech: “The only thing that separates women of color is opportunity.” Viola, an actress who is regarded as one of the greatest of our generation, has only been nominated for two Academy Awards. This is why she currently stars on How to Get Away With Murder. Jada recently made the leap to television as well, where actresses of color are more kindly regarded and are given complex roles that still elude them on the big screen. Starring in Gotham during its first season, Jada took advantage of the opportunity that presented itself.
In that same Emmy speech, Viola gave a shout-out to women who have “redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.” She mentioned by name Taraji P. Henson, Kerry Washington, Halle Berry, Nicole Beharie, Meagan Good, and Gabrielle Union. Viola emphasized that black actresses are not lesser than. During last night’s Oscars monologue, Chris Rock joked about Jada, “I’m like, ain’t she on a TV show?” Which is the entire point, isn’t it? Would Chris have said the same thing about Viola? Taraji? Maybe not, since they both have Oscar nominations and Jada does not. But Chris himself shouted out opportunity in his speech, so it seems weird to knock a black woman for being unworthy of an invite to the Oscars when she’s been invited multiple times before. I didn’t realize that when Chris Rock took the stage to blast Hollywood’s institutional racism, he was only addressing those with the right motives and credentials.
But here’s one thing to keep in mind: In June 2015, Jada received top billing for Magic Mike XXL — a film that grossed over $66 million. Three months later, Chris appeared in an episode of Empire.