The Academy said that it does not condone violence, but I could almost imagine a bunch of white men in their 80s high-fiving each other after Will Smith retaliated to a joke made by Chris Rock at Monday’s Academy Awards with what we Delhiites like to call a ‘chaped’.
The stunning moment unfolded live, possibly in front of billions, after the comedian joked about Smith’s wife, Jada, who suffers from alopecia. It was a terrible joke—one should, as a general rule, avoid commenting on people’s appearances—but it was a joke nonetheless. And as Rock proceeded with presenting duties, Smith walked into frame, and without missing a beat, appeared to slap the comedian across the face. The crowd went silent, unsure if this was just another poor bit in an Oscarcast that had been full of them.
Rock, to his credit, maintained his composure and continued with his job, announcing the winner for the Best Documentary Feature. “Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me,” he said, almost as if he was trying to convince himself that what had happened was real. He even had a bit of an out of body experience, when he remarked that this was probably the greatest moment in the history of television. Barely a minute had passed—Smith’s slap was still reverberating in the Dolby Theatre (in surround sound probably), but the moment I realised that this was probably not staged was when Smith yelled curses at him from across the room (the Academy wouldn’t have allowed swearing if this was scripted) and a shell-shocked Rock fumbled his next lines.
After spending weeks trying to engineer viral moments for this year’s Oscars, nobody could have predicted that an impromptu instance of Black-on-Black violence would dominate post-ceremony discourse. The Academy couldn’t have written a better script even if they’d tried. Because moments after the assault—let’s call it what it is—it dawned on people that Smith would probably be taking the stage again. He was the favourite to win Best Actor, for his performance in King Richard. Suddenly, three hours into one of the worst Oscarcasts I’ve ever seen, everybody was engaged.
Tweets from reporters at the venue flooded the internet. They described the aftermath in detail. Denzel Washington, who has recently become very religious it seems, did what any good pastor would and attempted to hard-sell Jesus to Smith. Videos of him taking Smith to the side, and having a chat with him during a commercial break, began circulating online. A little while later, Diddy—one of the presenters—made a reference to what just happened and called for a truce. Oh, it was real, alright.
When Smith, as expected, won his first acting Oscar barely half an hour after the incident, he was received with massive cheers. But he delivered a speech that he (or his reps) appeared to have written in the room. It was laced with talk of protecting one’s family, spreading love, and not standing for negativity. That’s a bit rich, isn’t it?
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do, you got to be able to take abuse. You got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business you got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you got to smile and you got to pretend like that’s okay,” he said, as the camera cut to Washington, who looked on gravely. “Thank you, Dee. Denzel said a few minutes ago, ‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you’,” Smith added through tears. His son, Jaden, tweeted, “And That’s How We Do It.” Anthony Hopkins would go on to gravely reflect on Smith’s words, with zero irony.
It was now his turn to be self-aware. Smith said, almost jokingly, that his behaviour was an example of ‘art imitating life’ and that he’d turned into a ‘crazy father’ not unlike the one he played in King Richard, a drama about the Williams sisters egregiously told from the perspective of their eccentric dad. But he stopped short of commenting on just how similar things had actually become. Smith’s film whitewashes every problematic aspect of Richard Williams’ personality, projecting him as some sort of all-sacrificing pioneer. And as Smith delivered his tearful acceptance speech for winning what essentially functions as a lifetime achievement Oscar, he charmed everyone into ignoring what had just happened minutes ago.
No charges have been filed against him, the Guardian said later. The Los Angeles Police Department will not be proceeding with an investigation. One has to imagine that this was Rock’s doing. Because he had a billion witnesses to the violence meted out against him. Smith ended his speech with an apology—not to Rock, though. “I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees,” he said, adding in an aww shucks manner, “Love will make you do crazy things.”
But have you wondered what Jada–ostensibly the target of Rock’s joke—had to say about all this? Did anyone bother to ask her, as her husband literally hogged the limelight? Firstly, let’s get one thing straight, Jada is old enough to take care of herself. She didn’t need her man marching on stage in an exaggerated attempt to defend her honour. We aren’t living in a Sandeep Reddy Vanga movie. Let’s please not forgive this prehistoric behaviour.
It is true that Rock shouldn’t have joked about her condition—and honestly, the joke doesn’t deserve to be repeated here—but her eye-roll should have been a sufficient response. Had Smith made a scene from his seat, it would’ve been fine. He might have even won some admirers. It would’ve even been okay if he’d walked up to the stage, disrupted the evening and confronted Rock verbally. But the moment he raised his hand, and strutted away with a slight smirk on his face, he turned himself into the villain. And for an actor who has carefully avoided playing one on screen in his three-decade career, he should’ve known better.