The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced that it will be conducting a formal investigation into actor Will Smith’s slapping of comedian Chris Rock in response to a joke Rock made about Smith’s wife at the 94th annual Academy Awards which aired on March 27.
“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show,” the Academy said. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.”
Although Rock has declined to file a police report against Smith, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, he still has the option to pursue one at a later date.
Rock, who was on stage to present the award for best documentary, made a joke about the shaved head of Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith.
“Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it,” Rock quipped, precipitating an eye roll from Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss. Instead of maintaining a stiff upper lip during this awkward moment, Smith marched on stage and slapped Rock in the face, shocking viewers across the globe.
“Wow, wow. Will Smith just smacked the s**t out of me,” Rock commented. “Keep my wife’s name of out your f*****g mouth!” Smith responded twice after having returned to his seat. And while this colorful conversation was bleeped for the U.S. television audience, the exchange was audible on international television and shared on social media. The drama continued when Smith was later awarded the best actor Oscar for his performance as Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard.
Smith, who burst into tears as he accepted the award, drew a parallel between himself and Williams, who he described as “a fierce defender of his family.”
“I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees. This is a beautiful moment and I’m not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning an award for me … Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
The slap which was heard around the world has divided Hollywood and sparked a social media feeding frenzy. Director Rob Reiner, for instance, took a hard line:
Will Smith owes Chris Rock a huge apology. There is no excuse for what he did. He’s lucky Chris is not filing assault charges. The excuses he made tonight were bullshit.
— Rob Reiner (@robreiner) March 28, 2022
Journalist Maria Shriver further called out the hypocrisy of celebrating Smith:
We should never get to a place where we sit and watch a movie star hit someone on global television then, moments later, get a standing ovation while talking about love. #WillSmith #Oscars
— Maria Shriver (@mariashriver) March 28, 2022
Others expressed sympathy for Smith while decrying his behavior. Actress Sophia Bush, for instance, said:
Violence isn’t ok. Assault is never the answer. Also? This is the 2nd time that Chris has made fun of Jada on the #Oscars stage, & tonight he went after her alopecia. Punching down at someone’s auto-immune disease is wrong. Doing so on purpose is cruel. They both need a breather.
— Sophia Bush (@SophiaBush) March 28, 2022
Comedian Tiffany Haddish went so far as to liken Smith’s slap to an act of chivalry.
“When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife. That meant so much to me,” the Oscar presenter told People, “And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”
Smith’s assault on Rock cannot be explained away as the product of a heated exchange or a desire to protect a loved one. Rather, it is emblematic of the fall of our standards of human decency. It is also reflective of giving people passes for unacceptable behavior under the banner of understanding their feelings or their intentions. While Smith’s desire to defend his wife is laudable, he should not have resorted to physical violence. He should not have possessed the hubris to believe that he could punch someone without consequences. However, he knew that he was in safe territory and that he would likely only receive a slap on the wrist for an action that might have landed an ordinary citizen in jail. Such is the power of elitism in privileged circles like Hollywood.
Smith knew that he was favored to win the Oscar. If he had kept his emotions in check during the Rock monologue, he could have ascended to the podium and accepted his best actor award with pride. Smith would have been the evening’s hero instead of its punchline.