Now, this is a story all about how, part of Oscar’s night got flipped, turned upside down; and I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, I’ll tell how Will Smith and Chris Rock became the talk of the town everywhere.
On Sunday, the 94th annual Academy Awards took place, airing live from the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The night was filled with historic wins and plenty of firsts, as shown through winners like Ariana DeBose and Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson. But those wins were just a few of the notable moments of the night, thanks (or no thanks?) to what happened between Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock just before the night wrapped.
If you’ve been living under a rock for the last 24 hours (lucky you) and aren’t privy to what went down, allow me to explain: You see, Rock sauntered out on stage to present the award for Best Documentary. In his opening, he did what comedians usually do—pick on people in the crowd for shits and giggles—before listing out the nominees. He joked on several people, specifically Denzel Washington, Javier Bardem and his wife Penelope Cruz. But it was the joke he made in regard to Jada Pinkett-Smith—who was there to support her hubby Will for his inevitable win for Actor in a Leading Role—that turned the night from “oh wow” to “OH SHIT!” And because I can show you better than I can tell you, peep the video below to see the entire moment unfold:
WHEW. Big yikes, I still cringe a little every time I watch it to be perfectly honest with you. But before I dive deeper into this, let’s get clear on a couple quick facts:
No, this wasn’t scripted.
No, it wasn’t planned.
And yes, we all saw it go down with the same shock and awe you may be experiencing right now. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s really dig into it.
Naturally, last night’s unexpected moment went viral on social media and garnered a myriad of reactions from Black Twitter. On one hand, you had folks who were taken aback and appalled, citing the fact that Smith’s behavior was a blot on Black people as a whole (as if there’s just ONE Black person that acts as the sole representative for all of us, but I digress). Others felt like the King Richard star overreacted, explaining that the slap didn’t fit the offense seeing as how what Rock said was just a distasteful joke (more on that later.) Others also expressed their disdain that the veteran actor “acted out” on the world stage, in front of a predominately white crowd, explaining that his actions did nothing but set Black folks back and make it harder for “us” to be invited back to the Oscars ever again. (There were also some who were calling for Smith to give his Oscar back and that’s such an absurd stance that I will only be giving it legs with this one sentence alone and that’s it.)
On the other hand, you had folks who felt Smith was completely justified in his actions likening it to the real-life personification of the phrase “Protect Black Women,”—time and place be damned. (Because let’s be real here: Rock said what he said publicly and Smith dealt with it publicly. Is it “protect Black women” but only in private or online? Or is it only when white folks aren’t around?) Others brought up the fact that because Pinkett-Smith had been open in recent months about her struggles with alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss, Rock’s joke was not only insensitive and offensive—it was lowkey ableist and an unnecessary dig at people who suffer from similar diseases. Given the ironic fact that Rock made a documentary called Good Hair exploring the ins and outs of Black women and our relationship with our hair in 2009 and the fact that he made previous digs at the pair back in 2016, some also viewed this as an overdue “I’m gonna get you sucka” moment where the comedian was finally called to the carpet.
Then, you had some who felt as if Smith’s actions were a sad display of toxic masculinity and spoke to a larger issue of Black men not realizing how their physical response to solving problems “in the name of love” can sometimes prove to be more harmful than helpful. You also had folks who felt as if Smith’s actions were a display of ego and it was more about him than it was about his wife. You also had some folks who argued that the Aladdin star’s reaction was misguided, citing the fact that he and his family have been more than outspoken over the years about the various...intricacies of their marriage and family dynamic so, why now, is he finally sticking up and saying something after all this time?
Oh, and I can’t forget about the other sect of people who think that comedians won’t be able to say what they want anymore and now have to fear for their lives when they perform their sets, lest they be subjected to the same fate as Rock. (I don’t know how many times I need to say this: Freedom of speech DOES NOT mean freedom of consequence. All that first amendment guarantees is that you won’t go to jail for saying whatever you want to. But that doesn’t mean people around have to 100% agree or like what you said.) Like the old adage says: “Don’t write a check with your mouth that your butt can’t cash.” It seems like, unfortunately, Rock wrote one and Smith came to collect EXPEDITIOUSLY. I’m not saying it’s right, because assault is a chargeable offense. What I am saying, however, is that our parents and grandparents gave us that gem for a reason. But I digress.
Then there’s the handful of celebs who have come out and said something either in defense or just anxious indifference about the entire ordeal like Tiffany Haddish (who called it “the most beautiful thing” she’d ever seen), Kenya Barris, Nicki Minaj, and LaKeith Stanfield (who’s reaction is probably the funniest and most on-brand reaction I’ve seen all day.)
So where do I stand in all of this, you ask? Well, I’m somewhere in the middle of it all.
I’ve always been of the mind that two, three, 50-leven things can be true at the exact same time. I’m also of the mind to think that the feelings of the most important person who hasn’t said much about how they feel about the slap—Pinkett-Smith herself—should be at the front and center of this conversation. I also believe that there’s something to be said about the centering of appearing like “a good Black” in front of white folks and the plague that respectability politics has on us as a community. We know playing by their rules has never guaranteed us the full actualization of our humanity by them, so I’m not really sure why that portion of discourse is being given much weight in the first place.
I’m also reminded of the fact that in Smith’s memoir Will, the veteran actor talked about seeing his father abuse his mother and the feelings of helplessness he felt as a kid at the time. Those feelings ultimately compounded into a fear of ever being looked at as a coward by the women in his life. So there’s a part of me that wonders—after all these years of laughing off jokes and “taking the high road”—if he’s finally come to a place where he’s no longer willing or has the emotional capacity to endure it. As he said in his acceptance speech, there’s long been an expectation to just smile and push through disrespect and abuse. And maybe, just maybe, we saw a man who decided he was finally tired of playing it cool and putting on a smile, and he finally wanted to play it HUMAN.
Lastly, what I will say is that I am a firm believer in giving Black folks the grace to fail. To mess up and be messy. To get it wrong after years of getting if right and to figure their way back to a good place. Society has never been forgiving of Black people who step outside of the parameters of what’s expected of them, we often get built up just to get torn down. What we saw last night was horrifying on a variety of fronts and from a zillion vantage points. But I’m not so perfect or myopic to think that there aren’t some mistakes that you can’t bounce back from if proper actions, time and grace are given. But I know I’m only part of a small group of people who think that way and the mainstream right now is chomping at the bit to see some serious consequences handed down to our Fresh Prince.
Whatever happens, happens, I suppose. I know the Academy has already made a statement about how they don’t “condone violence,” Smith himself has already apologized and from what Diddy says, he and Rock have apparently made peace. So I don’t really know what more we as the general public can or should expect to come of this whole ordeal. What I do know is that this year’s Oscars is one that’ll go down in history for a loooong time. I didn’t have any of this on my 2022 BINGO card, but expecting the unexpected seems to be the name of the game these last two years. So I guess we shouldn’t be all that surprised after all.