Rock’s hack crack no excuse for Smith’s shocking slap

There was a concerted push to make the Oscar broadcast less boring this year. Still, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock live on network TV was probably not the way the Academy meant to go.

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Opinion

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 28/03/2022 (186 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

There was a concerted push to make the Oscar broadcast less boring this year. Still, Will Smith slapping Chris Rock live on network TV was probably not the way the Academy meant to go.

“The Slap,” which occurred after Rock made a joke directed at Smith’s wife, immediately launched a social media storm and about a thousand hot takes.

I’d like to offer a lukewarm take. As incidents like this suggest, the temperature of our current cultural discourse really needs to be cranked right down.

First, a confession: I hate watching the Oscars live, so I just catch up on the highs, the lows and the standout dresses the next day. Consequently, I read all about this crazy contretemps before I saw it. Even knowing what was going to happen, The Slap was still a shock. To watch it unfold in real time must have been wild. Viewers were probably left wondering, was this an uncomfortable comic bit gone sideways? A strange Sacha Baron Cohen-type intervention?

Nope, it was plain old physical assault, Hollywood-style.

If you’ve somehow managed not to hear about The Slap, here are the basic facts: Comedian Chris Rock, who was maybe trying too hard to liven up the Best Documentary award, insulted Jada Pinkett Smith by referencing her hair loss, which is caused by alopecia areata, an autoimmune disease. He suggested she could star in a sequel to G.I. Jane.

Now if you’re taking the kinder, gentler, post-Hannah Gadsby approach to comedy, in which we need to stop fuelling laughter with pain — the comedian’s own as well as other people’s — this crack was out of line.

Even if you’re taking the old-school stance that comedians should be able to say anything in the cause of their craft, there’s not much of a defence here because the line wasn’t actually funny. (Plus, it relied on a pop culture reference from the 1990s, which is a total “dad joke” comedy thing, not an “Oh, I’m so edgy” comedy thing. I imagine most people were still trying to process what the line actually meant even as Smith was sucker-slapping Rock.)

Rock was being a bit jerky, then. But Smith behaved inexcusably by hitting him.

There’s been a recent tendency to speak of certain kinds of speech as violence. Debates around free speech and cancel culture have pointed out, rightly, that words often have damaging, devastating effects. But conflating nasty words with physical violence is risky, and this exchange concisely illustrates that point. Making a cheap, cruel joke is one thing. Striking someone in the face is in another category altogether.

Unpleasant as Rock’s gag was, Smith’s slap was an escalation.

If you don’t like something a comedian has to say, there’s this thing called “heckling.” You can yell, but you need to stay in your seat.

Smith’s words — he followed up the slap with an unprintable phrase — would have made for an unexpected moment, but they would have still fitted — just barely — into the overall Oscar weirdo montage (including the guy who streaked in the 1970s or Cher’s outfits in the 1980s). The Slap was a total tonal shift.

Chris Rock (left) reacts after being hit on stage by Will Smith. (Chris Pizzello The Associated Press)

As violent as that moment of contact was, the aftermath was perhaps even more disturbing, as everyone kinda, sorta pretended that nothing much had happened.

Smith’s personal, split-second loss of control was followed up by the prolonged gaslighting behaviour of many onlookers, including the producers of the show, which basically normalized physical violence.

In almost any other context — let’s say you were on a plane or in an office or at a store — the slapper would have been escorted away by security. Smith’s act was seemingly consequence-free.

Even as the entertainment industry insists that horrible behaviour on TV and movie sets is no longer acceptable and excuses about “creative temperaments” or “artistic genius” are not viable, this incident suggests that celebrity still exists within its own protective bubble.

Even as the entertainment industry insists that horrible behaviour on TV and movie sets is no longer acceptable and excuses about “creative temperaments” or “artistic genius” are not viable, this incident suggests that celebrity still exists within its own protective bubble.

That bubble meant that when Smith later went on to win the Best Actor award for his work in King Richard, a biopic about Venus and Serena Williams’ dad, he was able to deliver a speech that wobbled uneasily between emotional apology and creepy, look-what-you-made-me-do self-justification. Smith made parallels with his character, trying to spin his aggression by suggesting he’s a protector of women rather than a hitter of men, and even managed to suggest the slap was part of a divine plan.

Later that night, the famous and beautiful mostly declined to comment, and Hollywood partied on. The hangover is hitting now, though, and the Academy is scrambling to respond.

Monday night, Smith took to Instagram to apologize, writing, “Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally. I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong.”

alison.gillmor@winnipegfreepress.com

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Chris Rock (right) speaks onstage as Jada Pinkett Smith and Will Smith (bottom left) look on after Smith went onstage and slapped Rock. (Chris Pizzello / The Associated Press)
The Associated Press Will Smith (right) strikes presenter Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars after Rock made a joke about his wife’s hair loss.
Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

History

Updated on Monday, March 28, 2022 7:18 PM CDT: Will Smith statement on Instagram

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