Jada Pinkett Smith has had one heck of a career. The dancer-turned-actress, who got her start on NBC’s A Different World and a slew of roles in 1990s films (Menace to Society, Jason’s Lyric, Set It Off, The Nutty Professor), has risen to A-list status, navigating her way through the precarious maze of Hollywood and the music industry to de facto stardom. A graduate of the illustrious Baltimore School for the Arts, the triple threat has worked steadily in television (Hawthorne, Gotham), films and as lead singer of her metal band, Wicked Wisdom.
Through it all, Pinkett Smith has remained accessible to the public, offering words of advice, encouragement and her sometimes controversial perspective to her fans through a very active social media presence. Pinkett Smith is also an activist, whose causes include fighting human trafficking. Pinkett Smith is producing, with CNN, a documentary on sex trafficking, Don’t Sell Our Bodies, scheduled for release in July.
So Pinkett Smith’s decision to star in Magic Mike XXL may seem perplexing, since many believe that adult entertainment is a gateway to human trafficking. Why would someone committed to exposing the horrors of sex trafficking make a film about male entertainers? Pinkett Smith’s decision to take on the role of Rome, a sexually liberated DJ in the adult-entertainment world, was not done haphazardly.
The actress recognizes the contradiction and addresses it head on when asked if there were any reservations about taking the role.
“I had some reservations because of my work in human trafficking,” says Pinkett Smith. “Through my work, I realized that the sex industry is going to exist. There’s no eradicating it. Instead of focusing on shutting down this industry, I’m really into the idea of bringing responsibility to it.”
Actor Channing Tatum, star and producer of the franchise, was a male entertainer (stripper) before Hollywood called. Pinkett Smith says that talking to him about his past experience gave her more insight about the industry. Her knowledge of human trafficking, coupled with his experiences, made for a “beautiful partnership,” she says. “There are certain things he understands about the industry, the ins and outs, and there was a certain knowledge that I was bringing from my human trafficking advocacy as well. It’s a radical idea—really radical—but I felt like it was important to take a shot.”
Pinkett Smith also discusses the positive aspects of sexually charged environments, which she says can be places of “pleasure, celebration and exaltation.” The character of Rome is definitely reflective of this perspective, since she is clearly liberated and celebratory of sexuality in the film. In Pinkett Smith’s eyes, such spaces don’t have to be about degradation, which is how most people think of adult entertainment. “The idea that no matter what somebody’s doing, they should be treated as a human being,” is what motivates Pinkett Smith. “I really wanted Rome to embody an energy to show that a woman can have a sense of self-respect, dignity and demand that from whoever she’s dealing with in a sexually charged environment,” she adds.
Like Pinkett Smith, the character of Rome is powerful and a straight shooter. Rome is a confident woman who knows who she is and what she wants and operates on her terms. As one watches the film, which was shot in 28 days, it is clear that Pinkett Smith had a lot of leeway with the character. “We did a lot of ad-libbing,” she says.
“As far as Rome’s dialogue, they gave me a lot of freedom. I love that they were intelligent enough to know to give this to me,” adds Pinkett Smith, who brings a seriousness and authenticity to the character.
Despite the tight production schedule, Pinkett Smith says the set of the film was fun and energetic. “It was a fun party. Every day was like high school. I felt like I was going to a house party,” offers the beaming actress. The set was full of sexual energy and marked by camaraderie, especially among the women. “If you get into a room full of women, sometimes it can get tight. We didn’t have any of that. It was a beautiful way to be with women, and it was awesome,” says Pinkett Smith.
Making Magic Mike XXL was a positive experience for Pinkett Smith, who admittedly learned a lot about herself and says the film changed her perspective about the adult-entertainment industry, particularly as it relates to women.
“The more we empower ourselves as women, the more we can transform these environments. These environments are going to exist, but when we deny them, we push it further into darkness. We’ve got to eradicate the shame and eliminate the stigma in order to bring it in the light,” she says. “It’s a radical idea, but we must try.”
Editor’s note: Magic Mike XXL will be in theaters Wednesday.
Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.