Unless you’ve been hiding under a social-media-averse rock for the past forty eight hours, chances are you’ve probably caught wind of the slightly unusual moment at the 2022 Oscars ceremony. Namely, the moment where Will Smith hopped onstage to slap Chris Rock.
For those of you who aren’t aware of the final details, I shall explain the events and why I am choosing to write on them. Note, I will not be commenting nor speculating on a psychological breakdown of the nature of Smith and Pinkett Smith’s relationship because it would be just that – speculation. I know nothing about their private lives. I will instead focus on the backlash of this debacle at such a high-profile event.
Chris Rock was presenting an award and mentioned Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife. He commented how much he loved her and then delivered his comic line: “Jada, can’t wait for GI Jane 2”. This was in reference to Jada’s shaved head, which is a result of having alopecia – a medical condition resulting in hair loss. However, Jada was evidently displeased at the jibe, and Will, having laughed at first, quickly altered his mood and stormed onstage, slapping a rather taken-aback Rock. He then proceeded to repeatedly shout “keep my wife’s name out your f*cking mouth” at Rock, who struggled (understandably) to regain composure. Shortly after, Smith was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in King Richard. He stood onstage and apologised to the Academy and to his fellow nominees (but not Rock himself). He referenced how Richard (his character) fiercely defended his family, and how “Art imitates life”. He was not involved in the traditional picture of the four victorious actors (Best Actor / Actress and Best Supporting Actor / Actress), and it has been rumoured that his Oscar might be removed for violating the Academy’s ‘code of conduct’. This morning, he released an apology to Rock on his social media platforms.
Now, one might well question why I am choosing to discuss this. I seldom write on current events, but this event has sparked several interesting debates within film and TV. The first is the nature of comedy, particularly at high-profile awards ceremonies. Since Ricky Gervais’ infamous 2020 Golden Globes speech, in which he was rude about any and everyone, every famous Tom, Dick and Harry have decided that awards night is the place to have a stab at a roast. A few pay off, some are unoriginal (Amy Schumer on Leonardo DiCaprio’s young girlfriends, for example), and some just aren’t funny. Comedy is subjective, and there’s much debate over whether free speech / comedy should allow any and all topics to be joked about, or whether there is a line that shouldn’t be crossed. This line is different for everyone. The advantage of standup is that if you don’t like the comic’s style, you don’t go to their gigs. Simple. The problem with awards ceremonies is that it is such a wide and diverse audience, none of whom are there to see any one person perform or make japes. So as a rule, it’s a good idea as a host to play it quite safe. Chris Rock’s comment on Pinkett Smith’s hair could be considered mild in comparison to other comments made, but neither was it kind; regardless of what you think of Pinkett Smith, she has publicly shared her struggle with alopecia, and her confidence to go bald where she could wear a wig does not deserve ridicule. Neither myself, nor many of the audience laughing, nor Rock, can empathise with a black woman’s relationship with her hair. As Nicki Minaj put it, between Rock and the Oscars team, “you mean to tell me not ONE of y’all heard this woman just share this heartbreaking story?” Writer Jay Rayner spoke at a masterclass recently and mentioned how if you write something risky, or detrimental to others, you have to take ownership of that. You have to appreciate there might be backlash and accept that graciously; you don’t get to decide what offends others. The same goes for Rock’s comment. You cannot control, nor do you have a right to be insulted at, how the brunt of the joke receives your comments. In that respect, he took a risk.
But did he deserve to be clobbered about the face for it? Obviously not. Smith could have handled the issue in a classy, dignified way, making a statement at his speech or afterward simply commenting how beautiful his wife was. It would sufficiently undermine Rock and make him look mean-spirited, but retain both Smith’s dignity and his wife’s confidence. Instead, he chose to lower himself below Rock and resort to physical violence. As man who has a platform, and an audience, there is never an excuse to physically assault someone because you don’t like what they said about your wife. It’s the stuff of the 20th Century, and the ‘knight in shining armour’ facade is both dated and an excuse. If Jada was that peed off about the comment, she was perfectly capable of walking onstage and slapping him herself – but she didn’t. Smith’s son Jaden later tweeted ‘And that’s how we do it!’ in response to the incident, implying that the family as a whole saw physical violence to defend his mother as some sort of victory to be proud of. It might be traditional for a man to defend one’s family, but as far as I can tell, Jada is quite capable of speaking for herself.
The danger with issues like these is placing too much emphasis on celebrities to be perfect. This is why current cancel culture is so toxic; granted, some behaviour is unacceptable, but it also has to be understood that everyone makes mistakes. I’m as guilty as anyone; when Smith posted his apology on his Instagram this morning, I was skeptical. It seemed like a PR manager had said, look, mate, being gung-ho about this probably isn’t a great idea if you want to keep the Oscar. But then, who am I to judge? Perhaps Smith has woken up with the world’s worst anxiety hangover and is genuinely remorseful. Acting is a profession where fame is an unfortunate side effect, so nobody should be put on a pedestal of unreasonable standards. This is particularly prevalent when it comes to being an involuntary spokesperson for a community. Acclaimed author Bernadine Evaristo tweeted, “What a thing to wake up to. Only the fifth black man in nearly 100 years to win an Oscar for male lead, and the first in 16 years, resorts to violence instead of utilising the power of words to slay Chris Rock. Then he claims God and Love made him do it.” The implication behind her words is correct – Jaden’s tweet proves how much Smith’s actions can influence those who admire him. Kathy Griffin mentioned how, “Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.” But the problem with these statements are that they suggest that the celebrity in question wanted to be some kind of figure of influence. If it was an ‘influencer’, sure, their whole job is to do just that. They have a degree of responsibility under their job title, their desired fame. But is it unfair to hold celebrities to a higher standard than everyday people? If we throw out a tweet that goes down like a lead balloon, or slap someone, no one really, truly cares. For celebrities, one slip up and you’re hounded by the world’s media. Smith made an error, I am not disputing that, but he will – rightly or wrongly – receive backlash not only for the act itself, but also the ripple effect of ‘he condoned violence’. He didn’t; condoning violence would be saying ‘I condone violence.’ Smith slapped someone in front of some cameras. Evaristo’s tweet especially highlights this; minorities have to, and are expected to, work ten times harder to disprove stereotypes than your regular cis, hetero, white man. The fact that Will Smith is a black man means that whether he likes it or not, he has been given a platform wherein he has become a spokesperson for a minority. There is no margin for human error, especially with the introduction of cancel culture. Slapping someone is wrong, evidently. But the media should not act as though he explicitly told everyone to go out and do it. Nor should it act as though a black man needs to behave even more impeccably than anyone else to defy outdated stereotypes. It is our job to change preconceptions about others, not their responsibility to constantly have to prove themselves.
You should never resort to violence. Smith showcased some poor behaviour at a prestigious, theoretically classy, ceremony. But if it’s any consolation, knowing Twitter, I guarantee he’ll pay for it tenfold.