By Connor Carlin
It’s not every day that the question “did you see the Oscars last night?” has little or nothing to do with the highly deserved and monumental awards. No, the 94th Academy Awards will unfortunately not be remembered for the first openly queer woman of color winning Best Supporting Actress, or the first deaf man winning Best Supporting Actor, or that Samuel L. Jackson had an Oscar presented to him by Denzel Washington. It will be remembered for Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in front of an international audience, sitting back down in his seat and less than an hour later, going right back up to receive a standing ovation for his Best Actor speech.
In the week since, there has been a deluge of hot takes and opinions about the event ranging from reasonable to the slap being a staged false flag operation to distract the public from the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Regardless of the opinions themselves, the attention is all the more remarkable considering that this was the second least-watched Oscars ceremony since 1974 when Nielsen started recording television viewership numbers (second only to last year). It should be no wonder that over the past five years, if not longer, the biggest stories to come out of Oscars have been controversies, including the infamous 2017 “La La Land” and “Moonlight” mixup, “Green Book” beating out “BlacKkKlansman” and “Roma” in 2019 and the Anthony Hopkins-Chadwick Boseman upset just last year. I say all this to establish that, as much as this incident may be rich for analyzing on its own, it happened in the context of an awards show that gets far more coverage for things going wrong than for what the Academy plans the show to be.
This year’s situation goes as follows.
Comedian Chris Rock was presenting the award for Best Documentary Feature when he made an apparently improvised joke at Jada Pinkett Smith, saying “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” This was in reference to Jada’s shaved head, a product of her diagnosis of alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss and which she has been open about in the past. From the video, Jada rolls her eyes and is visibly displeased with the joke. Seconds later, as Rock started moving on, Will Smith took the stage, walked up to Rock and slapped him across the face before returning to his seat. He followed this up by shouting “Keep my wife’s name out your f**king mouth!” repeating this exclamation when Rock pushed back slightly. After this, Rock, clearly thrown by the events that just transpired, commented that “this was the…greatest night in the history of television” before proceeding to announce musician Questlove as the winner of Best Documentary Feature for his film “Summer of Soul.”
We should make one thing clear: Chris Rock’s joke was in bad taste, and he should have known better.
Even if he did not, according to Rock himself, know about Jada’s alopecia, a condition which disproportionately affects Black women, Rock himself has produced a documentary about the complicated relationship Black women have with their hair. A common reaction to the slap is that Jada should learn to take a joke, which I think misses the real complexities of the incident.
Commentators have raised this point both to defend Jada’s right to not have to take a joke and to praise Smith for defending his wife against an insulting jab. This is a valid point to raise against Chris Rock, and such criticism is merited on its own.
However, I believe these two critiques miss the entire picture.
Perhaps there is another world where Will Smith stayed seated, Chris Rock was dragged on Twitter later, even canceled, and discourse was had surrounding the social context of his joke. But we don’t live in that world, and essays such as Roxane Gray’s New York Times piece defending being thin-skinned, while insightful and important, feels to me like they would rather just talk about the joke and leave out the rest of the incident. I am all in favor of Black women feeling free to take offense at and/or not have to just smile and bear jokes made at their expense. But Pinkett Smith was not in a room full of people laughing at her baldness; on the contrary, the audience audibly pushed back on Chris Rock’s joke just before the slap. The issue at hand is not whether Jada should be able to take issue with an attack on her appearance, which she unquestionably should.
The issue is that Smith decided to take the opportunity to make himself a hero.
This then brings us to those that praised and supported Smith’s actions. One of the most common lines of defense in this regard comes from Black women who were glad to see a Black man publicly defending his Black wife. I don’t want to diminish that for anyone, such as women like Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-MA), who also lives with alopecia and praised Smith’s defense of Jada in a now deleted tweet. The notion that Black women should be given more support and protection is unarguably true.
What I think does need to be challenged is the idea that what Smith did was to protect his wife.
If Smith had stayed in his seat and either given Rock a dirty look, said some words of encouragement to Jada, or even still shouted at Rock, then that would’ve been Will protecting his wife under the circumstances. I’d go so far as to say that he would’ve gotten just as much if not more praise if he’d chosen one of those options. But by physically assaulting and cursing out Chris Rock, Smith made the moment not about his wife, but about himself and his need to be seen as a strong masculine man. If Smith truly was trying to protect Jada, then he just so happened to do it in a way that made him feel powerful in an old-school patriarchal fashion.
At the same time, we can have some degree of sympathy for Smith; he detailed in his recent biography “Will” the frustration and anger he felt growing up for not protecting his own mother from the abuse of his father. Take this into account alongside his Best Actor acceptance speech later in the night, where he spoke of wanting to be a protector to the people he loves like his character in “King Richard” and how love can make one do crazy things. With this, we can get a better understanding of Smith as someone who wants to make up for what he believes are his past failures and aspire to be a better man. That being said, the better man he seems to describe needs a lot of work.
This basic kind of nuance seems to have gone right over the heads of a fair number of the people who were immediately criticizing Smith’s actions. See no further than director Judd Apatow’s now deleted tweet about how Smith “could have killed” Chris Rock with the slap, which is more of an insult to Rock than anything. The massive uproar over the incident from mainly white people is, to say the least, a little unnecessary and disproportionate. It should be remarked that, while Smith gave up his Academy membership less than a week after the slap, it took the Oscars until 2017 to expel Harvey Weinstein, whose history of sexual abuse was the catalyst for the #MeToo Movement, and 2018 to expel Roman Polanski, who has been living in Europe since he fled the U.S. to escape prosecution for unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.
This incident is a peculiar bit of spectacle which the consequences of are still yet to be fully seen. Smith apologized to Rock through an Instagram post, though he has apparently not yet contacted Rock, while Jada has simply called for healing after the Oscars. As for the Academy, reviews of the awards ceremony itself have been generally negative, and the slap more than likely won’t help improve their reputation going forward.
However, the biggest unanswered question is how this incident will affect Smith’s career and brand. He has spent decades building an affable, likable image to present to the public, and strangely enough, this one very public display contradicting that image could mean the end of an era of Will Smith as a relatable leading man, at least for a little while. A number of his upcoming films have reportedly been put on hold following the slap, and only time will tell how Smith weathers this storm.