Just when we thought that the Oscars couldn’t get wilder than the infamous 2017 Best Picture snafu (justice for Barry Jenkins and Moonlight, still), this year’s Academy Awards provided stars and fans alike with one of the most unthinkable and shocking occurrences in its live show history: Will Smith slapping Chris Rock in front of the entire world. The moment has divided the timeline, with some feeling disappointed in Smith’s actions while others are thoroughly impressed, but the altercation is far more complicated than it is black and white — especially since the disrespect of a Black woman lies at the centre of it.
The 2022 Oscars, produced by super-producer Will Packer (leading the awards’ first all-Black producing team), promised to be a show unlike any other we’ve seen before, and Packer and his team made good on that promise. Sunday’s event blessed us with many things: Beyoncé’s long-awaited return, Megan thee Stallion’s Oscar debut, Ariana DeBose making history as the first Afro-Latina and openly queer woman to win Best Supporting Actress. Even with a unique format, things were going pretty well at the Oscars until a particularly distasteful and disgusting “joke” caused the night to take a turn for the worst. While taking the stage to present the award for Best Documentary Feature, comedian and actor Chris Rock directed one of his signature digs towards Jada Pinkett Smith and her recently shaved head, which she has revealed was in response to suffering from hair loss and alopecia.
“Jada, I love you,” Rock joked from the stage. “G.I. Jane 2 — can't wait to see it.”
VIA JAPANESE TELEVISION: The uncensored exchange between Will Smith and Chris Rock pic.twitter.com/j0Z184ZyXa— Timothy Burke (@bubbaprog) March 28, 2022
The barb, a reference to Demi Moore’s famous buzzcut in the 1997 action movie G.I. Jane, didn’t land well with the Smiths. Smith stood up from his seat, casually walked up to Rock onstage, and slapped him in the face while their peers watched in bewilderment. Stalking back to his seat, the King Richard star made his reasons clear to everyone in the audience:
“Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth,” Smith repeated, with Rock looking dazed and confused on stage. Smith later used his Best Actor acceptance speech to address the slap and apologise to the Academy and his peers (but not to Rock).
“I'm being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” Smith told the crowd tearfully, Oscar in hand. “I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse. You gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you in this business. You gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and be able to smile and pretend like that’s okay. Denzel [Washington] said to me a few minutes ago, he said, 'At your highest moment, be careful, that's when the devil comes for you’.”
“I look just like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams,” he concluded. “But love will make you do crazy things."
Singling Pinkett Smith out by making fun of her shaved head, a side effect of an autoimmune disease, in front of her peers was a lowdown, dirty move and a clear example of the particular torment that Black women of all walks of life are subjected to on a daily basis.
Smith’s carefully curated public persona as a doting father, caring husband, and lovable goof would never lead us to predict that he’d physically confront anyone, much less another celebrity, onstage at the most high profile event in Hollywood, but making sense of the shocking interaction actually requires a lot more context. While his speech doesn’t take away from the shock of the slap (nor from the potential legal and professional ramifications that it may have later), Smith’s emotional words do shed light on what may have taken him to that place. For years, he and his wife have been the topic of discussion in the worst possible way, their relationship picked apart and meme’d ad nauseam after news broke of Pinkett Smith’s complicated dynamic with R&B singer August Alsina in July 2020. Nearly two years after their emotional Red Table Talk episode, the Smiths are still being reminded of the past; much of Smith’s press run for his memoir and for King Richard was dominated by offhand remarks and tasteless teasing about “entanglements.” And in 2016, after Pinkett Smith boycotted the Academy Awards in support of #OscarsSoWhite, Rock delivered multiple quips at her expense on the very same stage. After a seemingly endless run of being the butt of the joke, Smith lost his cool on one of the most important nights of his career.
Sure, it’s easy to brush off Smith’s actions as a rage-fuelled public meltdown, but there is more to this story. Since 2018, Pinkett Smith has been openly discussing her complicated personal journey with her hair, sharing that her signature turban (as often seen on Facebook Watch’s Red Table Talk) was actually a means of masking the fact that her hair was falling out at a rapid rate due to alopecia areata. In December 2021, the actress shaved her head completely, debuting the new look in an Instagram.
Yes, Rock is a comedian with a reputation of saying whatever he wants under the guise of entertainment, but we all know that "comedy” isn’t a hall pass for marginalising people. Singling Pinkett Smith out by making fun of her shaved head, a side effect of an autoimmune disease, in front of her peers was a lowdown, dirty move and a clear example of the particular torment that Black women of all walks of life are subjected to on a daily basis. Black hair in every state has been criticised for one reason or another — something that Rock himself is undoubtedly fully aware of as the producer of the 2009 documentary Good Hair, which (imperfectly) explored the intricacies of Black women’s relationship with our hair. For all of the important knowledge he supposedly gained while talking with Black women across the country for the film, it looks like those sensitivities were ultimately less important than getting a joke off at a Black woman’s expense. But anything to make the people laugh, right?
On one hand, Smith did slap Rock for the entire world to see, an unexpected and untimely violent response given the setting the two stars were in. (A slap? Onstage at the Oscars? Unheard of!) But on the other, his reaction also spoke to the problematic culture of misogynoir in which it is common and perfectly acceptable for Black women to be privately and publicly denigrated without consequence. Rock’s “joke” about Pinkett Smith’s hair was inherently misogynoiristic, even in the off chance that he had no knowledge of her medical condition, but Smith put a stop to it with a show (albeit extreme) of support that we unfortunately don’t get to see too often. Because Black women are so often the subject of physical, emotional, and mental abuse without receiving any support from others — even within our own community — the popular phrase “Protect Black women'' tends to feel like a platitude because there’s no praxis behind it; the sentiment is rarely demonstrated in real life.
So, as jarring as the display was, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t moved by the sight of a Black man springing to his Black wife’s defence without hesitation. There’s definitely nuance here, and something to be said about the use of physical force to defend Pinkett Smith and the inherent toxic masculinity in the act, but Smith’s actions do feel like solidarity. And Black people going out of their way to care and protect each other should never be anything to be embarrassed about, no matter who's watching. A reminder: obsessing over the white gaze won’t save us.
It’s not surprising that certain people are ignoring the nuance of what unfolded by downplaying the emotional violence of Rock’s actions while emphasizing the physical violence of Smith’s.
Of course, not everyone is looking at the events of last night through that lens. On the other side of the internet, much of the discussion of the moment has taken a different turn, ranging from disappointment to calls for Smith to be stripped of his Oscar and even arrested (despite Rock choosing not to press charges). It’s not surprising that certain people — read: non-Black people — are ignoring the nuance of what unfolded by downplaying the emotional violence of Rock’s actions while emphasising the physical violence of Smith’s. To people who don’t have any understanding of what it means to be a Black woman in this world (and specifically, a Black woman with a disability), a joke about Pinkett Smith’s hair is just that: a joke. And rather than being empathetic to the people who were violated by Rock in that moment, their immediate go-to is dog whistling and virtue signalling, insinuating that Smith is some kind of danger to society for standing up for his wife. It’s weird but not at all surprising to see people turn on Smith so quickly. What is curious about the public response, especially that of Smith’s peers, is that Hollywood always picks and chooses who to single out for violence. Director Judd Apatow, the same man who looked the other way when James Franco was tossing Busy Phillips around on the set of Freaks and Geeks, somehow found the cheek to tweet (then delete) that Smith had “lost his mind.” Interesting!
The setting probably wasn’t the best place for Smith’s behaviour, but the vitriolic response directed at him (and not Rock) with little focus on Pinkett Smith is perturbing. Ultimately, the fact that someone was slapped onstage at the Oscars is truly unfortunate, but the calls to strip Smith of his award because “violence isn’t the answer” fail to reckon with the fact that this institution has repeatedly protected actual abusers and rapists like Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski. Clearly, certain violence and the constant disrespect of Black women seem to be completely fine with the same people who are so incensed over Smith’s slap.
Black women deserve protection. Slapping someone in public isn’t okay. Disrespecting Black women should have real consequences. “Love” isn’t an excuse for violence. All of these things can be true at the same time.