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The Smith clan (clockwise from top left): Will, Jada, Willow, and Jaden.

stage dive

Stage Dive: In Defense of Will Smith, Building an Entertainment Empire on the Backs of His Children

Whole meals have passed since author Terry McMillan shared — then immediately retracted — some ill-considered Twoughts about Willow and Jaden Smith, the Hansel and Gretel of Topanga Canyon. McMillan worried they were “being pimped and exploited” by their famous parents when she heard that the Smiths are forming the “film venture” LLC to facilitate a reimagining of Annie with Willow starring as the marquee orphan. (No word on how whippable that traditional tangerine fright-wig is, but these days, even iconic hair appliances can be Autotuned.)

What touched off McMillan’s ire all of a sudden? After all, Willow and Jaden’s flawlessly art-directed media onslaught has been plenty visible for years: Willow has charted a single; Jaden has recorded with Justin Bieber, presented at the Oscars, and studied at the feet of master thespian Jackie Chan. So why object now? (Perhaps the announcement came too hot on the heels of proposed changes to New York State child-labor laws, which threaten to reclassify Broadway as a tiny-tot sweatshop. News like that tends to taint attitudes toward singing orphans, in any medium.) Or was it the Vanity Fair photo spread? The blatant preteen prostration before the altar of fame? Or was it the invocation of “Annie”?  

Based on absolutely nothing, I’m going with Annie. This most anodyne and mainstream of all pop properties has a history of tapping deep veins of controversy. (David E. Kelly's Boston Legal realized this back in the early aughts.) The question of who gets to play the eyeless moppet goes straight to the heart of our democracy. As goes Annie, so goes the Republic.

And there’s the “pimping” issue, but then there’s the privilege issue, too: Will and Jada Smith founded a whole freakin’ Ender’s Game–style ultraschool for their kids to attend, so is it really surprising they’d start a company with Jay-Z just to ensure that their little whippersnapper (and some random Breslin or Fanning) gets to wear the red dress?

But as far as Annie goes, I think McMillan's way off here. First, her suggestion that the Smiths develop an "original" star vehicle for Willow — one with “ethnic pride” — is monumentally wrongheaded. Encourage originality over homogeneity at that tender age? You’re practically dooming her to a life of lonely iconoclasm. Not even Will and Jada can afford to keep a child in graduate school forever; the Christmas-dinner arguments over Foucault and Queer Theory alone would break them. (Also: In musical theater, originality and ethnic pride have traditionally been considered signs of weakness.)

More to the point, who’s the real victim here? No one stops to think about the stage parents: It takes tremendous energy and stick-to-it-ness to foie gras all your trammeled showbiz dreams into your progeny. The hard fact is, Will Smith never played Annie. For all his triumphs, this one was denied him. Oh, sure, when Willow’s acclaimed for reinventing the role, he’ll be happy for her. Or try to be. But backstage at the Kids' Choice Awards? He’ll be eating himself alive.

Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images