Jada Pinkett Smith says 'you had to tone down your blackness' to be 'acceptable' in Hollywood

Jada Pinkett Smith is her own woman. From the start of her acting career to marriage and motherhood, she’s never let anyone else define who she is and what she can do, enabling her to pursue acting, producing, music, philanthropy and raising a family all on her own terms. As she puts it, “It’s just a matter of really having the courage to create the life that’s specific to you and no one else.”

You can’t tell me what being a woman means for me and what that looks like. You’re not allowed to tell me what my motherhood should look like. You’re not allowed to tell me what my strength should look like. You’re not allowed to tell me what my vulnerability should look like. That is for me to decide.

Opening act

Pinkett Smith grew up in Baltimore with her mom and her grandparents. “My grandmother wanted me to learn about everything. So I had to take piano lessons, I had learn French, I took ballet, I took tap. I took everything you could imagine.” After graduating from a performing arts high school, she headed to Los Angeles, Calif.

Big break

Pinkett Smith’s first auditions in LA were tough. “People loved my energy. But I was rough around the edges,” she recalls. “And I got a couple of people they’re like, ‘You’ll never work, your east coast accent is too strong.’ And I would just sit there and I’d go, ‘OK. We’ll see about that.'” But she persisted, and after a few bit parts, won a role on the TV show A Different World. In 1993, she got her big screen break with Menace II Society. “It was so awesome to be able to participate in a movie like that, that expressed what was happening to young people from where I was from, and then to get so much critical acclaim.”

DANA POINT, CA – FEBRUARY 07: Jada Pinkett Smith speaks onstage during The 2019 MAKERS Conference at Monarch Beach Resort on February 7, 2019 in Dana Point, California. (Photo by Vivien Killilea/Getty Images for MAKERS)

Life imitates art

In 1994, Pinkett Smith was invited to audition for the role of Will Smith’s girlfriend on mega TV hit Fresh Prince of Bel Air. She didn’t get the part on the show (“They told me I was too short”), but she would eventually get it in real life. ”I met Will. We became really good friends. And then he went through a divorce. And we decided to date.” The pair got married in 1997.

Black excellence

Pinkett Smith was a movie star at a time that she describes as a heyday for black talent. “We came into Hollywood, all we had to do was come ready and kick the door down. Right? And then it kind of eased down, the fad went out.” The actress admits that was tough and she found herself having to “tone down your blackness in order to be acceptable. And there were some of us that were able to crossover into white culture, more mainstream projects.” 

A seat at the table

In 2018, Pinkett Smith launched “Red Table Talk,” a web series in which she joins her mother and daughter to take on topics ranging from race and grief to relationships and immigration through the lens of three generations. “We get to learn from each other,” she says. “I learn so much from my mother. I learn so much from my daughter.” Show episodes have achieved as many as 30 million views on Facebook.