Should Will Smith return his Best Actor Oscar after assaulting Chris Rock?

Did beloved global superstar Will Smith open-hand slap comedian Chris Rock on live television as it beamed to millions across the world? And then proceed to yell vulgarities? Twice? And then go on to accept his first-ever Academy Award for Best Actor a mere 30 minutes later?

Yes, yes, yes and yes he did. 

And that’s how the much-derided “old and boring” Oscars got the viral moment they’ve always wanted. Albeit playing out entirely different from the way I’m sure the Academy spent countless nights dreaming of. 
 

To recap, this is what went down: Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith being all ready for GI Jane 2, given her shaven head. The missing background info that perhaps triggered Smith’s extreme physical and verbal reaction is that Pinkett Smith has been publicly open about her struggles with alopecia, which causes hair loss.

What went down at the Oscars 2022: The winners, silence for Ukraine and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock
Will Smith smacks Chris Rock on stage, then apologises upon winning Oscar

One slap and two “Keep my wife’s name out of your f****** mouth” proclamations later, Smith goes back on stage to receive his first ever Oscar and give a tearful Best Actor Academy Award acceptance speech for his role as the titular King Richard (father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams).

Using the platform, Smith apologises to the Academy, his fellow nominees and for the overall melee. But he never once apologises to Rock. The person he, for all intent and purposes, assaulted.

I was one of the many watching the Oscars and the unexpected fracas played out entirely uncensored (the sound was cut off in the US when Smith started using vulgarities but it aired uncut on my feed) to my disbelieving eyes. Because who would have expected any of this to happen the way it did?

Combination picture showing Will Smith hiting Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

Not when it’s the Will Smith we’re talking about. The consummate professional who is consistently billed as one of Hollywood’s nice guys. The “overall good guy” I (and many others) have been a longtime fan of and grew up watching him evolve from being the Fresh Prince and the Man in Black to Muhammad Ali and Richard Williams. 

As a film and entertainment journalist for the last 14 years, and having also covered the Academy Awards in person in Los Angeles, I’ve seen my fair share of hoopla and kerfuffles. I honestly thought I’ve seen it all. But this is Hollywood after all, isn’t it?

I’ve interviewed Smith many times, and he’s been nothing short of a gentleman showing utmost professionalism. Sure, we all know the PR machine that is Will Smith The Brand always works overtime during press interviews and events. Call me naive, but no matter how good an actor one is, the kindness and consideration Smith always seem to exude in person to service staff, press, and just about everyone else around him really comes across as genuine and hard to fake. I felt it. I’m sure everyone else did too. 

So why, Willard Carroll Smith II, would you so uncharacteristically use violence (both physical and verbal) in such a public arena to respond to a slight? Moments before what would be one of the biggest moments of your career – winning your first ever, long-coveted Oscar?

Sure, it’s important to stand up for your wife. For your family. For all the brickbats and taunts one endures being in the harsh celebrity limelight. To take a stand against “tasteless humour” and to defend what might be painfully triggering for Pinkett Smith and, by possible extension, those who suffer from alopecia. 

But violence is never the answer. No matter how bad or inappropriate a joke may be.

And now Smith has laid it all out on one of the most public of platforms, a dangerous signal to everyone (adults and kids alike) that it’s okay to respond with violence. 

However wrong Rock may be, many people (both inside and outside of the industry) have stated how Smith’s aggressive reaction felt largely disproportionate to the insult. 

There are non-violent ways to defend your family’s honour. 

It’s shocking that Smith was not escorted off the premises after the fact. This is assault. And assault is never okay. Imagine if this was an altercation between two different races. Or two women. Or even between a guy and a girl? Would the Oscars have continued and let the perpetrator not only remain at the event, but also go on stage and be lauded for his achievement?

Bradley Cooper seen comforting Will Smith after the latter slapped Chris Rock, during a commercial break of the Oscars 2022. (Photo: AP/Chris Pizzello)

It’s sheer wonder that Rock reacted as calmly as he could and handled the altercation as smoothly as he did (which was why many people thought it was a scripted and staged stunt). 

Not only did he take it on the chin (or cheek in this case) and continued presenting the Best Documentary Oscar (which went to The Roots drummer Questlove’s now overshadowed Summer Of Soul) but, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, he is also not going to be pressing any charges for the assault. 

Will Smith hits at Chris Rock as Rock spoke on stage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, Los Angeles, California, U.S., March 27, 2022. (Photo: REUTERS/Brian Snyder)

I’m not here to argue whether Rock crossed the line with the joke (the three of them have a history of Oscar night jabs which never amounted to anything major before). But this is par for the course for Rock, who is a comedian known for this particular brand of humour, with a joke that is considerably mild by his standards.

Smith was also recorded as laughing along with everyone until he noticed Pinkett Smith’s reaction. It was the sudden 180-degree switch that caught everyone off-guard, and when things turned ugly.

This feels like toxic masculinity at its worst.

As comedian-director Judd Apatow said in a now-deleted tweet: “He could have killed him. That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They are not freshman in the world of Hollywood and comedy. He lost his mind.”

I’ve always been a fan of Will Smith, his attitude beyond his craft, his work ethic, his professionalism. Now I’m not so sure anymore.

Will Smith arrives at the Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)

Yes, Will Smith, you did a brilliant job playing Venus and Serena Williams’ dad, delivering a truly Oscar-worthy performance. By all means, speak of the similarities between you and the character you play  both Richard Williams and you are “fierce defender(s) of (your) family”.

Be what you feel is a calling in your life, “to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people”, as you said in your acceptance speech, with tears rolling down your face. But “art imitates life” as an excuse? Please. Art should never imitate life when it comes to assault. 

“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things,” you said in your speech. But does that absolve all reprehensible actions?

For Smith, this glorious much-deserved acting award will forever be tarred by this unnecessary public altercation. Will Smith is more than this… isn’t he?

So now we wonder: What are the repercussions for this sort of behaviour, Hollywood A-list privileges notwithstanding?

Will Will Smith be asked to return the Best Actor statuette he’s just been awarded? Should he? Does it even matter? Doesn’t the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences have a strict code of conduct policy it adheres to?

We shall see how this all plays out. Hollywood, it’s now your move. 

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