Will Smith accepts the award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for "King Richard" during the show at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022. Credit - Robert Gauthier—Los Angeles Times/Getty Images
Will Smith is only the fifth Black man in history to win an Oscar for Best Actor. But on the night of his historic win, the biggest story has become his reaction to Chris Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. At first glance it was a throwaway line in the patter, suggesting Pinkett Smith would appear in G.I. Jane 2, a reference to Demi Moore’s 1997 movie in which her head was shaved for most of the movie as her character attempts to finish a military training program. It’s not a particularly clever or interesting joke, but it seemed like any other barb tossed off from the stage (in fact, a source later told Variety it wasn’t in the script). It was, however, a cruel thing to say about someone who has publicly been struggling with alopecia for several years. Does that mean that Smith was right to hit Rock? Absolutely not. But some of the hyperbolic reaction to what transpired say less about Smith’s actions and more about people’s inability to consider the situation with any nuance.
Rock has targeted some of his most biting jokes at the Smiths in the past, the most notable being the 2016 Oscars when he mocked Pinkett Smith’s decision to boycott the Oscars, suggesting that she wouldn’t have been invited anyway. At the time the couple appeared to brush it off. “Hey, look it comes with the territory, we gotta keep it moving,” Pinkett Smith said. So what changed? Was it the unseen impact of her illness? Was it the stress of the last few years? We may never know exactly what led to this time erupting into a physical conflict instead of a few lines in an interview. This doesn’t mean Smith was right. It means he is human. And humans mess up.
As a society we often pick and choose which violence is acceptable and forget that what we might do is not necessarily what someone who doesn’t share our history will do. People get fed up, they run out of patience, they see a moment of deep hurt on a loved one’s face, and they react. At base celebrities are people, as vulnerable to their emotions as anyone else. Will Smith should not have slapped Chris Rock. But he also shouldn’t have had to watch his wife’s illness be used to make her the butt of an ableist joke.
Hollywood’s history with interpersonal violence is complex because Hollywood is nothing if not forgiving of white men’s violence, especially against women, as evidenced by the long careers of Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein. Mel Gibson’s periodic returns to the screen—including a 2016 nomination for Best Director—after facing allegations of domestic violence as well as spewing racist and antisemitic attacks on costars and others signals a willingness of many in Hollywood to look the other way. The Oscars have also never been immune to public conflict. John Wayne reportedly had to be restrained by six men when Sacheen Littlefeather used her time at the podium to refuse Marlon Brando’s Godfather win on his behalf when he boycotted. She later claimed she was blacklisted by studios, which effectively ended her acting career. Yet the conflict at this year’s Oscars seems to have many who have been, let’s just say, morally flexible about violence ready to take a stand against it now.
Consider the quick take of Judd Apatow, who claimed, “He could have killed him. That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshman in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.” This is a bizarre reaction given the fact that Apatow worked for years with actor James Franco who actress Busy Philipps claims grabbed her and threw her to the ground during on the set of Freaks and Geeks. After other users pointed that out, Apatow deleted his tweets on the topic.
Others expressed concern about Pinkett Smith, but some seemed to worry more about her treatment by Smith than by Rock. Former Access Hollywood host Erin O’Sullivan even compared Smith’s reaction to that of a domestic abuser. Yet there’s no evidence that Smith has ever been accused of being physically abusive to a partner, and he has spoken at length about how much guilt he still feels about not being able to save his mother from being abused when he was 9. It’s likely that history has a significant impact on what transpired at the Oscars.
As writer Sara J. Benincasa pointed out in a thread immediately after the incident, “As a Sicilian from a family with few boundaries I am unqualified to be shocked by a man decking somebody who said something about his wife, I will leave that to people whose parents went to therapy early and often.” That’s also my personal reaction as someone watching from the outside who comes from a community where when words don’t work, sometimes hands do. Rock and Smith are from similar communities, and as evidenced by Rock’s decision not to press any charges, they will likely handle the rest of their interpersonal conflict in private. And while none of us know for certain how Pinkett Smith feels, it appears that they hold true to their commitment to stand by each other no matter what. It was a shocking incident in the moment, but I also don’t think outright condemnation of Smith is the answer. Some situations need our empathy, not our outrage.