Relatability has seldom been Jada Pinkett Smith’s selling point as a star. Her first major role, as bank robber Stony in Set It Off, allowed the actress to find an equilibrium between flintiness and vulnerability. But in many of her subsequent roles—in The Matrix sequels, Girls Trip, TV’s Gotham—her screen image evokes hardness or rigidity. Dogged by rumors of queerness, swinging, infidelity, membership in Scientology, and other unconventional elements, Pinkett Smith’s 20-year marriage to Will Smith, not to mention the early creative careers of their children, has solidified perceptions among mainstream audiences of the actress as anything but an ordinary mom. Few other five-foot-nothing women in Hollywood are seen the way she is: as athletic, aloof, intimidating. (It’s impossible not to wonder how much of that perception is informed by her race, as black women tend to be historically coded as “strong” in ways that discount their femininity.)
Pinkett Smith’s persona has made her distinctive, but not exactly embraced. With Red Table Talk, her wildly popular talk show on Facebook Watch (each episode boasts views in the low tens of millions), the actress finally gets to re-frame herself in the public eye and present herself as she clearly wishes to be seen.
Tiffany Haddish’s now-famous anecdote about the Smiths’ ignorance of how a Groupon works annihilated any illusion that Pinkett Smith is one of us. Wisely, then, Red Table Talk, which debuted two months ago, focuses on universal issues like parenting, friendship, and loss—topics that allow Pinkett Smith to regale the audience with stories of youthful struggle while offering tidbits of headline-making revelations. Filmed in the Smith family home with the occasional participation of Pinkett Smith’s mother, Adrienne Banfield-Jones, and daughter, 17-year-old Willow, the shows offers both celebrity voyeurism and truly moving discussions. Most of Pinkett Smith’s guests have been members of her own family (including son Jaden and Will’s first wife, Sheree Fletcher) or other black women in the spotlight, such as Haddish and former frenemy Gabrielle Union. (Will has yet to make an appearance, perhaps too busy building his own digital empire on YouTube and Instagram.)
Originally greenlighted for 10 installments and recently renewed for an additional 13 episodes, Red Table Talk feels like a triumph: of a celebrity taking control of her public reputation after decades of misunderstanding, of a black woman who wants to hash out evergreen issues with black womanhood at the center of the conversation, of the tricky balance between being relatable and acknowledging one’s undeniable privileges. Even in her cagiest moments—and there are many—Pinkett Smith comes across as a sincere and maternal soul who’s had to learn a lot of things the hard way, and wants to share her experiences so that others don’t have to go through what she did.
That Pinkett Smith came from difficult circumstances opens her interviews up to new directions many others can’t go. Haddish has been a late-night fixture since her breakout role in Girls Trip, but it’s hard to imagine any other host on TV telling the comedian, “We both thought that we [were] just going to end up being a statistic.” Even harder to imagine on network television is Haddish’s candid, possibly polarizing response: “I thought I was going to be a baby mama with, like, five kids, four baby daddies—like, collect the county check, you know?” In that riveting half-hour, Haddish’s ultra-authenticity accidentally lays bare Pinkett Smith’s natural reserve, as the comedian goes through stories like a Starbucks through paper cups: her traumatic childhood, her illiteracy until the 10th grade, cutting off a forehead wart with scissors in class after being teased about it, and clearing her schedule for a date with Drake that never happened (“I could have made $100,000 [that day] but I was trying to see what that D do!”).
I’m not sure what direction Red Table Talk will take once Pinkett Smith has gone through all her iPhone contacts, but these early days are fun in letting us glimpse what celebrity friendships might be like. Haddish comes to the Smith residence bearing a kale plant in a Target cooler; Pinkett Smith gifts her in return with a Valentino bag. In a different installment, Gabrielle Union is presented with a Tiffany & Co. necklace.
The biggest surprise in Red Table Talk, though, might be the relative normalcy of Hollywood’s first family. Smithologists will have plenty to pick through, from Jada’s teenage drug-dealing in the streets of Baltimore to tear-filled admissions of hair loss. Episodes with her children reference Jaden’s moving out at age 15 and Willow’s brief period of self-harm following too-early fame. You can easily spot the times when Pinkett Smith steps gingerly around a topic or is deliberately vague, but you also have to admire the boldness of uploading as the first installment—on Mother’s Day, no less—a clearly tense discussion between herself and Sheree Fletcher, in which the two discuss how they approached their relationship with one another as Will’s current wife and former wife, respectively, and the effects their conflict may have had on their Will and Sheree’s son Trey. Is it navel-gazing? A bit. Is it juicy? Certainly. Is it a necessary discussion that explodes our outdated notions of what constitutes a family and will be relevant to millions of people? Hell yes.
Pinkett Smith’s makeover as a relatable mom is about two-thirds successful. She’s not above sometimes using her celebrity associations as a teaser, then declining to follow through. She heartbreakingly observes that she knew many people who didn’t make it to age 30, among them Tupac Shakur. He appears on-screen in affectionate poses with Pinkett Smith, who austerely notes that there’s been a lot of speculation about their relationship over the years, then changes the subject. A bonus video in which Pinkett Smith talks ecstatically about rejuvenating her “yoni” plays right into stereotypes about out-of-touch celebrities who fall prey to woo-woo GOOP-iness. But there’s no denying that the matriarch offers an aspirational model of bougie black domesticity and an approachable nontraditional family of color that clearly exists but is all-too-hard to find in the rest of pop culture. Pinkett Smith might never become America’s mom. But she’s finally her own woman.