People are taking sides over the Slap Seen ‘Round the World — actor Will Smith’s assault on comedian Chris Rock at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday. In response to a joke aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Smith stormed the stage and slapped Rock in the face.
One side condemns Smith for this display of toxic masculinity and privileged, ego-driven selfishness that ruined the celebratory night for everyone while making stand-up comedians everywhere potential targets. Smith’s poor judgment carried on, this faction argues, when he later accepted the Best Actor Oscar and eluded responsibility for his impulsive violence by blaming it on love, the devil and the character he portrayed in “King Richard,” the film that won him the award. (Smith resigned Friday from the motion picture academy.)
The other side admires Smith for coming to the defense of his wife, a Black woman who suffers from alopecia, a hair loss condition that made her the object of Rock’s off-the-cuff attempt at humor. And they applaud Smith’s subsequent speech for its contrition and pleas for love and understanding.
Initially, I leaned slightly toward the latter view but now am firmly in the camp that believes what the actor did was stupid and wrong. Probably Will Smith, himself, looks at it that way, too. At the very least, he is aware that, for all his days to come, when he gazes at that golden Oscar statuette on his mantel, his sense of pride and accomplishment will be tainted by feelings of shame and regret. He ruined his own biggest moment in the spotlight.
Yes, Smith was wrong, but Chris Rock should not be let off the hook — and not only for his ill-considered joke about a woman’s shaved head. Just moments after the slapping incident, Rock made another attempt at being funny that was, arguably, more offensive. Announcing the award for Best Documentary Feature, Rock said, “The winner is ‘Summer of Soul’ — Ahmir Questlove Thompson and four white guys.”
There are two things very wrong with that. One is that among the “four white guys” was Joseph Patel, a South Asian man. Second, why did Rock take it upon himself to refuse naming the other producers of the film simply because of their skin color? If he had been giving out the award for Best Actress, would he have called Jessica Chastaine to the stage, not by her name, but as “a white gal”? Chris Rock’s casual racism deserves at least a slap on the wrist.
Someday it would be nice if the Oscars could move beyond being a showcase for insult-driven comedy and tedious attempts to make up for Hollywood’s years of neglecting diversity. Just give us a celebration of movies that shows far more respect for all the talented people who create them.
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