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Jada Pinkett Smith

Jada Pinkett Smith: freedom fighter

We talk to the star of ‘Girls Trip’ about black storytelling, life’s imperfections and taking control

For all the things you think you might know about Jada Pinkett Smith, one thing is for sure – she’s a bold woman. She’s a successful actress, a passionate philanthropist, a producer, and the lead singer of a metal band named Wicked Wisdom. She is also, of course, married to Will Smith. While many may want to focus on the gossip surrounding her private life, she is far more preoccupied with giving people, especially women, the freedom to control their own narratives.

“As women, we spend so much time worrying about what men think about us and trying to gain their respect,” she says. “As far as I’m concerned, fuck them.” But her fighting talk shouldn’t be confused with frustration – she's happy. “We’ve made a very successful movie,” she says. She’s right – Girls Trip made over $30 million in its opening weekend, the best opening of an R-rated comedy in two years. 

In what I’ll call the “post-Moonlight” era there is, at last, a feeling of optimism in film. New releases continue to defy everything that studios had largely believed were indisputable facts, namely that black characters don’t pull people into cinemas. Films like Hidden Figures and Get Out have smashed box office expectations, proving – as is very common these days – that experts don’t know shit.

Girls Trip is a raucous buddy movie meets Lemonade. It stars Regina Hall as Ryan Pierce, Pinkett Smith as Lisa Cooper, Queen Latifah as Sasha Franklin, a talented journalist stuck in the tabloid world, and Tiffany Haddish as Dina, the wildcard of the group. There’s dancing, drinking, and deep throat grapefruiting, while four lifelong friends reunite after losing contact for a few years. Set against the hedonistic backdrop of the Essence festival in New Orleans, the group discover that Ryan’s (Hall) seemingly perfect life as a successful self-help author wedded to a handsome football player, isn’t all it seems and she does not “have it all” as she repeatedly tells her fans. None of them do.

Beneath the smiles, there are issues with infidelity, divorce, sexual frustration, career uncertainty and financial instability. But what might seem like a tried and tested format (trip away, plus alcohol, equals laughs and possible sequel) is also a radical exploration of womanhood.

“As women we spend so much time worrying about what men think about us and trying to gain their respect. As far as I’m concerned fuck them” – Jada Pinkett Smith

Since 90s blockbusters like Waiting to Exhale, we haven’t seen movies spearheaded by four captivating black women. But according to Pinkett Smith, the relatability of the stories, not the ethnic background of the characters, is the key to connecting with viewers imaginations. “We are having our stories told in a way that encompasses universal themes. Take something like Hidden Figures. Every woman can relate to not being seen for their talents, not being valued the way they should be – no matter your colour or background. I always say that one woman is every woman.”

Films that solely focus on female relationships are rare and Pinkett Smith talks excitedly about the widespread support that the project received. “Women from all backgrounds came out to support this movie,” she says. “We wouldn’t have been able to have this kind of success if our white sisters, our Latin sisters and our Asian sisters didn’t come out and support this movie. There’d just be no way to do it.” It’s certainly a compelling argument. Given the immediate blockbuster success of Girls Trip, it’s a safe bet that studios might stick the script. “Just imagine if you have that kind of solidarity in all aspects of life what we could do. If we just respect one another and follow each other's power we could change the world. Just us. Completely and utterly.” 

The film follows her divorced character’s journey to find her own meaning beyond being the property of her ex-husband or the guardian of her children and Pinkett Smith believes it’s “deeply important” to take control of your sexuality and self-worth. “Women should own themselves. They shouldn’t even look to other women, as far as a standard in of how one should live.”

Many of the central themes of the film are so real to her – she’s a successful woman in the spotlight who also understands the pressure to project success rather than allowing people to see what bothers you. “Everybody knows that life’s not perfect,” she says. “People like to pretend sometimes. But I do believe that when you are in the public eye it's not necessarily your responsibility to have to divulge everything that is happening in your life. People want truth but they're not always responsible with truth, so as far as the public persona is concerned, there is public persona and then there is your private life, and they are very two separate things.”

However, Pinkett Smith readily admits that sometimes the strongest thing to do is to take charge of your own narrative. Her vulnerability has been evident recently when she was forced to speak on her relationship with Tupac following the release of recent biopic All Eyez on Me. The two met at Baltimore School for the Arts and their relationship has been questioned for decades. She described the portrayal as “deeply hurtful” and has cried in interviews revisiting the memories. But her public displays of sadness she says is connected to her own “existential crisis” – Pinkett Smith was a drug dealer at the time. She made it and he didn’t. Now unlike the characters in Girls Trip she’s keeping her wild days far behind her. “I have a very boring life now. Queen Latifah has described my trips as relaxation trips – we sit around and go to the spa, and talk or sunbathe together, and have great meals.”

“People want truth but they’re not always responsible with truth, so as far as the public persona is concerned, there is public persona and then there is your private life, and they are very two separate things” – Jada Pinkett Smith

Queen Latifah and Pinkett Smith are longtime friends, having worked on projects together for years and neither of them are unfamiliar with taking risks with their choice of roles. The pair famously appeared on screen for Set it Off, an action-packed heist movie championing black female loyalty. But it’s a film that Pinkett Smith feels wasn’t given its “just dues”. “Studios at that time were not ready. When I look at a movie like Set It Off and then I get to look at movies like Hidden Figures and Girls Trip, you get to see how studios are starting to grow and expand their concepts in regards to the reach of black storytelling. I will say that having been part of movies like Jason’s Lyric, Set It Off, Menace To Society during that era, studios had no idea how to market those movies outside of the urban community.”

Representation in the film industry is passionate about, having boycotted the Oscars in 2016, saying that black people shouldn’t have to “beg for acknowledgement”. And she senses the tide turning as successful black films aren’t just about slavery or crime. “I do think that there's more opportunity for black filmmakers and writers because studios are starting to see that it's profitable. We might want to talk about the moral and social responsibility but at the end of the day all studios care about is ‘does it make money?’”

There is an overarching theme in Pinkett Smith’s personal purpose and the intention of films like Girls Trip. The smallest acts can allow you to take control of your own story. “When you’re given the freedom to be who you are that is when you discover fearlessness.” This message is something she’s keen to get across to the next generation of women, filmmakers and her children. “When somebody says, ‘OK, so you want to shave your head (Willow)? Go for it!’ Or ‘oh okay, you want to wear a skirt Jaden? Do it!’, and you can walk down the street and confront your fears, people’s criticisms, and all of their thoughts and ideas of what you should be, and still stand true to who you are ... that’s all the training you need.”

Girls Trip is out in cinemas now, watch the trailer here