“Fresh Prince” was one of my favorite television shows growing up. WIll Smith’s eponymous character — jovial but mischievous, earnest but cool — made the show. For a young man of color with relatively few role models to look up to, Will Smith was that for me. From “Men in Black” to the “Bad Boys” series, Smith built an empire on the back of his earnest brand of cool. As he grew up, he took on roles that aged with him. Though they were more complex, they always captured that same admirable verve that kept you looking up to him: whether in “The Pursuit of Happyness” or his Oscar-winning role in “King Richard.”
But the Academy Award he won last night — the highlight of a 30-year film career — will forever be diminished by what Smith did just minutes earlier. Comedian Chris Rock had made a frankly ableist joke poking fun at the hair of Jada Pinkett Smith — Will’s wife — who has been public about her alopecia. After initially appearing to laugh along with the comedian, Smith stormed up the stage, planted his feet, and slapped the comedian across the face.
Pop culture isn’t part of my usual media diet — nor my usual beat. But this moment matters. Culture is the sum of the stories we tell ourselves about just that — who are we? And who do we want to be? For a whole generation of young people, Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Chris Rock helped answer those questions. And in one dumb joke and the slap that came after it, they shook the foundations of the stories they told.
I tried, as I usually do here, to find a single through-line. I couldn’t. The story is too layered. So here are nine:
1) There are redlines in comedy. Making fun of disabilities is one of them.
Millions of Black women live with alopecia, an autoimmune condition in which the immune system attacks hair follicles. While comedians carry the unique ability — even responsibility — to examine controversial topics through humor, it should go without saying that individuals’ health challenges are beyond the pale. This is a disability that predominantly affects marginalized people. It’s not an appropriate substrate for cheap comedy.
2) Escalating to violence in the name of “protecting” is the height of toxic masculinity.
In his acceptance speech, Will Smith tried to excuse his behavior as being about “protection.”
Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I've ever met. I got to protect Saniyya [Sidney] and Demi [Singleton], the two actresses who played Venus and Serena.
That’s a tired excuse. First, “protecting” is about preventing something from happening, not retaliating after it happens. Truly “protecting” someone involves de-escalating a potentially harmful situation, not deliberately escalating it. Smith inserted himself into a situation that wasn’t about him. And by excusing it as something it was not, he leveraged a toxically masculine trope to justify it.
3) This tweet
Another claim Smith made was that “love will make you do crazy things.” That’s true — but the crazy things that love will make you do should be about supporting, empowering, uplifting, or inspiring the ones you love, not slapping a third party.
Some might argue that Smith did act out of love, that he was “defending his wife’s honor.” There could have been many other ways to do that that don’t involve slapping a man. If he wanted to, he could have even walked up to Rock, and demanded the comedian apologize on the spot. He could have consoled his offended wife by reminding her she looked beautiful. He chose to put his hands on him instead, escalating it beyond justification.
4) Will Smith’s violent outburst wasn’t about “protecting” anything but his own ego.
This is the fundamental crux of toxic masculinity: gender hierarchy translates people into property and disagreement into violence.
5) The academy says they don’t “condone violence of any kind,” but they certainly haven’t done anything to oppose it, either.
This is what the academy tweeted late last night:
Had he been anyone else, Smith would have been escorted out of the building for assaulting a presenter. But he’s Will Smith — and therefore was allowed to take his seat as if nothing happened. Indeed, he was invited to give a speech later on in the show! That’s what it looks like to condone violence.
But there’s another issue. We’re talking about Hollywood’s most powerful institution — you know, the Hollywood that popularized movies full of blood and guts and gore? While the academy, I’m sure, is horrified that its best actor for 2022 smacked another man at their show, they’ve been condoning violence for decades.
6) Why should our response to violence change because of where or to whom the violence takes place?
The internet’s collective gasp had little to do with the fact that one man slapped another man over something that was said. After all, that kind of violence, sadly, happens all the time. It had a lot more to do with the fact that one A-list celebrity slapped another A-list celebrity at an A-list celebrity-only event. It’s a reminder that context matters when it comes to violence.
The parallel here should be obvious. America has been wrapt watching Putin’s brutal war in Ukraine for the past month. But our country made war for decades in Iraq and Afghanistan, through which we seemed nonplussed — not to mention brutal acts of wars in Syria, Palestine, Ethiopia, or elsewhere.
Who we choose to pay attention to — which victims and perpetrators matter — says a lot about who we value. The irony here is that the inequity in whose stories earn our attention is something that Will Smith has tried to rectify in his work.
7) This tweet too:
Certainly, violence shouldn’t be the answer. The problem is that our society has institutionalized violence in so many forms against so many people that we have become inured to the violence that occurs all around us. When we’re forced to see its brutality — even between well-heeled men in suits — it should force a certain level of introspection.
But the issue at hand isn’t the violence itself, it’s the time, place, and people among whom it’s deployed. It turns out that what we really mean by “violence isn’t the answer” is that it’s never the answer among wealthy people in fancy places when polite company is paying attention. Which means that, in our society, violence is far too often the answer.
8) Chris Rock’s choice not to press charges is the best thing that happened to Will Smith last night.
Chris Rock’s joke was inappropriate. But from that point on, his behavior was exemplary. Not only did he show his colleague an extraordinary amount of forbearance in declining to press charges — let alone hit back — but somehow find the composure to go on with the show after being slapped on live television.
Will Smith won his first Oscar last night. But the greatest gift he received was the leniency he was shown by a man to whom he showed none. The charges could have come with a six-month jail term.
9) Everyone lost yesterday.
If you haven’t seen anything else from yesterday’s Oscars, please watch Questlove’s acceptance speech for his award for best documentary for “Summer of Soul” (the award Chris Rock was actually up to present just after this happened). His heartfelt tribute won’t be much discussed — because Will Smith had just slapped someone on live TV. He’s just one of the many people who’s achievements of a lifetime will always come with a weird asterisk. “2022 — wasn’t that the year that Will Smith smacked Chris Rock?”
Chris Rock got slapped on live television — but he also carries the stain of an unnecessary joke made at the expense of someone whose disease affects her appearance.
But the biggest loser of all was Will Smith. He appeared in his first feature length movie in 1992 in “Where the Day Takes You.” Thirty years later, he won the most prestigious award in acting — 20 years after his first nomination. That’ll always be overshadowed by his outburst.
All of us lost something, too. Smith is a trailblazer who sought to tell uncommon stories with style, class, and authenticity. What made Smith unique was the earnest dignity he brought to his work and the way he carried himself. After yesterday, it’ll be hard to look up to him the same way.