An Opinion-Piece on Will Smith’s Oscars debacle.

On Sunday 28th of March, one of the most prestigious and significant event of the films industry, the 94th Academy Awards, the Oscars, took place. Unfortunately, what was supposed to be a night of celebration and recognition for actors and other films professionals were overshadowed by Will Smith’s infamous “slap that was heard around the world”.

On Friday 8 April, The Academy who launched an investigation of the incident, gave its verdict. Will Smith is banned from attending the Oscars, or any of its event, for 10 years.

Although the incident took place almost a month ago and, has been and discussed in the media and, across social media ‘ad nauseam’. The issue is still trending online and making international headlines.

Chronology of the incident

Before I proceed , here’s a recap’ of the facts: (assuming you’ve been living under a rock-no pun intended-and, have no idea what people are talking about):

Comedian Chris Rock took the stage of the Oscars to introduce the “Best documentary feature” category. Upon his arrival, he immediately poked fun at Jada Pinkett-Smith who was sitting with husband Will frontstage saying: “Jada, I love you! G.I Jane 2 can wait to see it!”.

The joke is an allusion to Jada’s bald hairstyle and a reference to a 1997 movie, in which actress Demi Moore plays a fictional first woman lieutenant to join the Navy Seals, a special US Navy’s operation force. She is determined to succeed/survive a grueling special training program, in a male dominated environment. To blend with her male peers, Lieutenant Jordan O’Neil (her full name in the movie), shaves her hair.

Demi Moore Movie GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY
(Via Giphy)

It is worth mentioning that, over the past few months, Jada disclosed that her shaved look is the result of Alopecia, a condition that cause hair to fall.

After the joke, Will is filmed laughing loudly, in unison with the public. Then, in a bizarre twist of events, Will who has just noticed Jada rolling her eyes and acting irritated, stood up and started walking toward Chris Rock.

As the 2 men are face-to-face, Will seems unsure for a few seconds of what to do next. Then he proceeds to give Chris Rock- who continues to laugh, looking a bit unsure though- an open-handed slap. The scene is so weird, that the public and most of the viewers might have thought first that, everything was staged.

“Wow, Will just hit the shit out of me!” said Chris Rock, while Will is marching back to his seat, in a much more assured demeanour, a little victory lap.  People were still unsure of what was going on, judging by the audience who continued laughing for a few minutes afterwards. One person who probably understood that sh* was going down, was actress Lupita Nyongo, sitting right behind The Smiths couple, judging by her facial expressions.

Chris Rock, who is trying to keep his composure, and in an attempt to keep things moving said: “This will certainly be the best night in television!”. Will Smith then starting shouting angrily back at him, twice, “KEEP. MY WIFE NAME. OUT OF YOUR FUCKING MOUTH!”.  

Rock, who admirably managed to keep his composure, finished what he came to do, introduced the next category’s winner [let’s get real for a second: imagine if he had decided to push back or retaliate and a real fist fight erupted?!- At the Oscars?!, Woo the ghetto! ].

Two things can be true at the same time…

A lot has been sad about the incident, but here are a few takeaways, or my 2 cents rather :

Firstly, it is concerning to read across social media, how people (mature adults who are expected to behave better) were quick to justify, (even praise), Smith’s behaviour, in the name of ‘defending his wife’s honour’. But being roasted at the Oscars is part of the game. This is a tradition that happen to most US awards ceremonies. We can criticize some of the jokes or find them cringy, but Will and Jada are both veteran actors in Hollywood who have attended countless of awards ceremonies. So they know what to expect.

I came across a segment on a French TV channel, where one of the commentators passionately said, and I translate: “Will Smith should have even gone harder on Rock. If it was me, I would have punched him hard, take my wife and leave!”. He adds:” Taking jabs at someone’s wife, who is furthermore dealing with a sickness, should be off-limit”.

The problem is, Jada Pinkett is an actress and Hollywood personality in her own right. Rock was not taking aim at a poor little sick lady who had accompanied her husband. Jada is Rock’s industry peer, and an outspoken confident woman, who didn’t need this kind of ‘defending’.

Like the French commentator, many people rejoicing in this reaction, were just happy that Will validated their own toxic and problematic views of masculinity.

What is probably more concerning, is that, people seems to think that Chris Rock joke, deemed insensitive towards people suffering with alopecia and, Will Smith violent reaction to it, cannot both be condemned. Two things can be true at the same time. We can call out Rock’s joke and ask comedians to adapt their comedy to the current social settings. At the same time, we can firmly condemn Will’s reaction, because it is not ok to go around slapping or hitting people, just because we didn’t like something they’ve said or done.

The Academy producers let down Chris Rock

The Academy producers were strongly criticized for letting Will Smith go back to his seat after what was clearly a public assault (on live television on top of it). He was even allowed to collect his award and make a (rather pathetic) long speech. Will Packer, who was producing this year’s event offered a justification for this inaction, but still, this confirm that we live in a world where double-standard is the norm.

What was perhaps more disturbing than the slap, was Will’s acceptance speech of “Best Award Actor” for his role in “King Richard”. In the biopic, he portrays tennis legends, Venus and Serena’s father, Richard Williams. So, rambling through tears, Will Smith apologized to the Academy and his colleagues-he didn’t mention Chris Rock- and, justified his action as an ‘act of Love’. He even went as far as comparing his action to Richard Williams’ role as a protector and fierce defender of his family.

This performance was really problematic, because not only it resembles the behavior of men who are abusive towards women, then justify their violence as an act of love gone bad. The speech was also disrespectful towards the Williams sisters (who were in the audience), as we never seen their dad going around assaulting people, in the name of ‘love’ and defending them. Even when his daughters were subject to unfair, frustrating and discriminatory treatments from the press, tennis’ umpires and sometimes, hostile crowds.  Richard Williams even commented on that, diplomatically rebuking Smith.  

An evening that should have been a celebration for the movie’s entire cast, a tribute to the Williams’ sisters and their dad’s extraordinary story of resilience, and determination, will forever be tainted by an unfortunate outburst, which could have really been controlled.

What is even more sad, the incident has taken the spotlight away for so many other celebratory moments. For instance, Will Packer and his production partner were the first all-black team to produce the prestigious event. And things were going pretty well before the slap. For a ceremony that has been criticized over the past few years for so many misses, this edition seemingly, was going to be a hit (again, no pun intended). Also, the all-female trio of comedians (Regina Hall, Amy Schumer and Wanda Sykes), chosen to officiate the grand mass, were, according to many reviews, doing a great job too. The ‘slapgate” has also sadly overshadowed musician Quest Love’s win in the category announced by Rock.

The incident has brought up so many debates, some of which very particular to the United States’ discourse on race, gender and class. Many ‘think-and-opinion pieces’ on respectability politics, black-on black crime, how our ‘faves” gets away with awful things. In other words, how Will Smith was handled with care during the ceremony because he is a rich successful good looking black man who has managed to keep a polish, good guy image for decades.

Although the incident has been a polarizing issue, like everything that lands on social media nowadays, it is important to state that Will Smith’s reaction, in such a professional setting (no matter how glamourous it seems, the Oscars are a work event for actors and films professional), was completely wrong. We can debate at length on how Chris Rock’s joke was distasteful, but for an actor to get up on stage and punch a comedian during such an event, set a dangerous precedent. Some comedians have raised their concerns and how this was dangerous to their profession.

Media reports has announced that security had to be beefed up for the Grammys, which happened the week after.  It was hosted by Daily show’s host, South African comedians Trevor Noah. Thankfully, no such dramas were reported.

Will Smith’s behaviour is most probably the consequences of years of bottled-up embarrassment, because of the constant airing of intimate secrets about their marriage and family life, via Jada’s family talk show The Red Table Talk. Indeed, Will has been over the past 2 years, the butt of jokes and generator of countless memes on social media, most notably since the ‘entanglement revelation’.

Jada didn’t need that kind of defending

As said before, Jada is a confident, outspoken woman, who proudly sports a gorgeous shaved hairstyle (Jada, along with Hally Berry and Tony Braxton are some of the Black women who has been sporting gorgeous short hairstyles for decades.), and doesn’t need this kind of “defending in the name of love and protection”. It would have been more impactful for Will, or Jada to address Rock’s joke afterwards and raise more awareness regarding alopecia.

” When it comes to defending Black women, America is still stuck on stupid”

Karen Appiah

As a Black woman, I cannot deny the fact that we are often at the receiving ends of racist, misogynists jokes (misogynoir) across social media and, generally demeaned by the society at large, (sadly by black men very often). But as written by Washington post’s columnist Karen Appiah, in her opinion-piece about the incident : “(..) We need new options in this culture. The choice for protecting Black women shouldn’t be between male violence and everyone else’s silence. When it comes to defending Black women, America is still stuck on stupid.”. In the world of famous songstress Aretha Franklyn, what we need is R.E.S.P.E. C. T! From everybody.


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