For more than a month before the Slap Heard ‘Round the World, Oscar producers made it clear that, desperate to bounce back after the lowest-rated Academy Awards in history last year, they were courting a new audience — the lowest common denominator. Eight technical categories would be cut from the live show and relegated to pre-taped segments awkwardly edited into the broadcast in an effort to trim down the ceremony’s run-time. Lifetime achievement awards presented to Samuel L. Jackson and Elaine May, two legends that any true movie fan would be delighted to hear speak, weren’t televised at all, ostensibly to make room for Twitter polls about Zack Snyder movies and Spider-Man and an extended trailer for Chris Pine’s forthcoming Buzz Lightyear prequel. West Side Story actress Rachel Zegler had to publicly shame producers into giving her a ticket to the event, despite her film’s seven nominations, while folks like DJ Khaled, Tony Hawk and Shaun White — none of whom have anything to do with movies — were all invited to present. All of this, the Academy assured us, was being done to make the storied event more exciting.
Sometimes you’ve gotta be careful what you wish for.
In case you happen to be living under a rock, a brief summary of the chaos that broke out in the broadcast’s final hour: Chris Rock, while presenting the award for Best Documentary, made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s bald head, saying, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” Pinkett-Smith, who has spoken publicly about her struggles with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss, was visibly annoyed, rolling her eyes. That should have been the end of it, but her husband Will Smith, nominated for Best Actor for his role as Venus and Serena Williams’ father Richard in King Richard, stormed up onto the stage and slapped the comedian across the face. “Wow,” a stunned Rock responded as Smith returned to his seat. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.”
“Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Smith yelled back from his seat in the crowd. “Wow, dude,” Rock answered. “It was a GI Jane joke.” “KEEP MY WIFE’S NAME OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MOUTH,” Smith said again, increasing his volume and erasing any confusion over whether this was a real fight unfolding before our eyes or some sort of weird, scripted bit.
Was it a cruel joke? Sure. But Smith’s reaction went far beyond any sort of natural inclination to stand up for his wife; it was a gross display of toxic masculinity, broadcast live to an international audience of millions. No matter how offensive he found the joke to be, there was absolutely no reason to respond with physical violence. (There are, arguably, some situations in which such a reaction might be called for, like if Rock had physically assaulted Pinkett-Smith or if he happened to be a Nazi espousing hate speech, but to respond this way over a dumb joke is insane.) If he had decided to throw hands inside literally any other establishment on Earth, Smith would have been booted from the premises immediately, but Oscars producers knew that there was a good chance he would win Best Actor later in the evening, and they weren’t about to turn down an opportunity for ratings gold, baby, so they allowed him to return to his seat and take in the rest of the show, and about 40 minutes after he assaulted Rock, they did in fact present him with his award. (Later, the Academy would go on to insist via tweet that they don’t “condone violence of any form,” but it’s hard to think of a more obvious example of condoning someone’s behavior than literally handing them a golden trophy.)
Smith’s speech was equally embarrassing. In it, he doubled down on the weird, patronizing idea that all the women in his life need “protecting” while crying — not tears of joy, but the tears of rage and shame that you often see from, say, a second-grader who got sent to time-out for fighting at recess. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who was one of the most strongest, most delicate people I ever met. I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses that played Venus and Serena. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.”
“I know to be able to do what we do you gotta be able to take abuse, you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you,” he added. “In this business you gotta have people disrespecting you and you gotta pretend that that’s OK…Denzel [Washington] said to me a few minutes ago, ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.’” Eventually, he did express regret, saying, “I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees,” but he notably did not apologize to Rock.
The worst thing about the whole debacle is that it overshadowed an otherwise historic night. Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of color to win an Oscar, taking home Best Supporting Actress for her turn as Anita in West Side Story, and Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an Oscar — and only the second deaf person overall, after Marlee Matlin won for Children of a Lesser God 35 years ago — for his role in CODA, which also took home Best Picture. Questlove delivered a moving speech about marginalized communities after winning Best Documentary for his film Summer of Soul, but it was upstaged by the fight that preceded it. In fact, it seems difficult to imagine anything from this year’s ceremony getting a fraction of the attention that a grown man’s violent outburst undoubtedly will for weeks to come. A night that should be about honoring and recognizing great talent and celebrating the victories of those who have historically been woefully underrepresented by Hollywood will instead go down in history as The Night Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock.
That’s not fair to the nominees and winners who have worked their whole lives to get here, but perhaps more importantly, it’s not fair to the millions of people watching at home, some of whom are young or impressionable enough to see Smith’s slap and get the wrong idea from it. Smith’s own son, Jaden, tweeted his support after the ceremony, writing, “And That’s How We Do It.” What kind of antiquated ideas about masculinity, violence and “protection” has his father passed on to the next generation?
Ultimately, there are a million ways Smith could have responded to Rock’s dig at his wife without getting physical. He could have simply jawed back from the crowd, or even responded directly with some pointed comments during his acceptance speech later in the evening. He could have let his wife’s eye-roll speak for itself; why did he feel as though she needed him to step in on her behalf when that blistering look seemed destined to become a viral meme on its own before he decided to puff out his chest and take matters into his own hands? Or, of course, he could have simply ignored it. (Doesn’t he know that people like Rock are simply looking to get a rise out of him and that there’s no burn more devastating than simply remaining unbothered? Has Don Draper’s infamous “I don’t think about you at all” scene taught us nothing?) His way certainly maximized Oscars excitement, but at what cost?
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