Why has Will Smith's Oscars slap resonated so much?

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·Senior Editor
·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

Actor Will Smith’s slap to the face of comedian Chris Rock instantly transformed Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony from a glamorous celebration of the year’s best movies into a disorienting and troubling spectacle that celebrities, the media and everyday Americans haven’t been able to stop discussing.

The incident came after Rock, who was presenting the Oscar for Best Documentary, made a biting joke about the hairstyle of Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith — who has in the past publicly discussed her struggles with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. Will Smith responded by walking onstage and slapping Rock across the face before returning to his seat and shouting an expletive at the befuddled comedian.

Rock regained his composure and the show continued. A short while later, Smith was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, in the film “King Richard.” During his acceptance speech, a tearful Smith spoke about his impulse to “protect” the people around him and apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his actions. The next day, Smith apologized directly to Rock in an Instagram post, writing, “I was out of line and I was wrong.”

On Wednesday, Rock opened his stand-up set by telling the audience he was “still kinda processing what happened.” He added that when he does eventually share his thoughts, “it will be serious and funny.”

Why there’s debate

The shocking scene sparked an immediate flood of reactions over social media, with debates about what fueled Smith’s outburst and whether his actions were justified. But the incident has stayed at the forefront of public conversation longer than most viral moments tend to, thanks to a broad range of topics about the many cultural forces the incident so starkly highlighted.

In the eyes of many commentators, the slap — along with events that preceded and followed it — represents the convergence of a long list of some of the country’s most complex and divisive issues, including perceptions of masculinity, the trappings of celebrity, the ways predominantly white spaces respond to Black anger, the role Black women play in America, and the flaws in how society tries to dissect difficult topics.

What’s next

The Los Angeles Police Department said in a statement Sunday night that Rock has declined to press charges against Smith, meaning it’s unlikely Smith will face any legal repercussions. The academy said Smith was asked to leave the Oscars after the incident but refused. It has opened an inquiry and is expected to make a decision on appropriate action within a few weeks.


Smith’s actions showed how deep toxic masculinity runs in our culture

“Violence committed in the name of defending a woman’s honor is rooted in sexism. It’s ugly. It’s coarse, and it does nothing to serve the people in whose name it is committed.” — Soraya Nadia McDonald, Andscape

The slap highlighted how quickly Black anger becomes politicized and commodified

“I’m compelled by public spectacles of Black internecine conflict, particularly in predominantly white spaces, and the ways in which those spectacles are instantly racialized, the fact that they are charged by internal respectability politics, and the process by which they instantly become entertainment fodder.” — Niela Orr, BuzzFeed News

There’s an enormous racial divide in the reactions to the slap

“What has developed since that unforgettable moment at the Oscars is a classic ‘two Americas’ conversation. By that I mean: Black people and white people aren’t necessarily talking about the incident in the same way.” — Jemele Hill, Atlantic

Rock’s crass joke drew attention to often-ignored bias against Black women’s hair

“However you feel about Smith’s reaction to Rock — and there are many who seem to be split on it — this incident points to a concerning and larger issue that Black women continue to face around their natural hair not being good enough and being made to feel ashamed of wearing it proudly.” — Brennan Nevada Johnson, NBC News

There is something deeply American about the incident and its aftermath

“In a sense, Will Smith and Chris Rock find themselves, in front of a global audience, enacting dual sides of American exceptionalism. Chris Rock, backed by freedom of expression, can lob rhetorical jabs against Jada Pinkett Smith and claim protection by saying he was joking. … We are left then with Smith, who behaved in perhaps the most quintessentially American way ever witnessed on an Oscar broadcast.” — Peniel E. Joseph, CNN

Smith’s defense of his wife resonated with many people who have been the targets of abuse

“I think a lot about how we are constantly asked to make our skin ever thicker. … Who is served by all this thick skin? Those who want to behave with impunity. If the targets of derision only had thicker skin, their aggressors could say or do as they please. If we all had the thickest of skins, no one would have to take responsibility for cruelties, big or small. It’s an alluring idea to some, I suppose.” — Roxane Gay, New York Times

We can’t help but overanalyze every incident, regardless of how simple it is

“By now, I’m sure there are a million opinion articles about the Oscars’ impromptu slapping exhibition on Sunday. … But my ‘hot take’ is much simpler: Sometimes people get smacked. That’s it. That’s all.” — Michael Harriot, the Grio

The slap was a shocking reminder that celebrities are human

“The reason so many of us are asking one another what just happened, the reason we’re so disturbed — a reason — is that maybe these three are like family, and it hurts to watch them feud. To witness intense emotional and psychological frailty (call it narcissism if you must) is to be left with as many questions about who we are as about who, Sunday night, Will Smith became.” — Wesley Morris, New York Times

The moment provided an equal amount of fodder for wildly different criticisms of Hollywood

“Some Oscar haters recoil from the Hollywood spectacle because they see it as a gathering of self-serious, clueless, rich narcissists who can’t take a joke. Others criticize the show for glamorizing an industry rotten with privilege and toxic masculinity. With one open-handed swing, Smith, amazingly, managed to prove them all right.” — Ryan Faughnder, Los Angeles Times

Smith’s act of violence tapped into anger that’s been bottled up for 2 incredibly tough years

“Everything is awful, it is easy to argue. But not at the movies. Films remain a refuge, a place where artists can make sense of life, especially when they’re working at the level of Sunday night’s nominees and winners. … We needed Sunday night’s family celebration not to dissolve into anger after the two years we’ve just experienced. Instead, we left it feeling a little more stressed and dismayed.” — Julie Hinds, Detroit Free Press

Our culture makes a habit of imposing lofty narratives on even the most straightforward events

“We don’t have to take this too seriously. We don’t have to live like this, mapping complex social phenomena on something fundamentally as straightforward and unexceptional as dudes using a personal slight — or a perceived one — as a pretext for getting physical.” — Joel Anderson, Slate

People are projecting their own experiences onto an incident that has nothing to do with them

“Our reactions to Smith’s behavior are tied to our experiences or those of people we love, which is why this incident has generated so much conversation beyond the initial shock of witnessing it. In this way, how we feel about what Smith did is as much about us as it is him.” — Connie Schultz, USA Today

‘Insult comedy’ and roasts are bullying and demeaning to everyone

“The casual but hurtful insult has become too much part of everyday discourse. We see it on Twitter all the time. We see it when politicians walk down the street, and hear it at football grounds. We almost take it for granted. But it demeans society, and is an impediment to reasoned argument.” — Simon Kelner, i news

Is there a topic you’d like to see covered in “The 360”? Send your suggestions to the360@yahoonews.com.

Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Robyn Beck/AFP via Getty Images (3)

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting