Photo: Will Smith and Chris Rock at the Oscars
I woke up to dozens of messages from my friends and news alerts about the slap heard around the world: Will Smith smacked Chris Rock live at the Oscars. (Or as kid Z knew them, Oscar from ‘Shark Tale’ smacked Osmosis Jones) What?? I couldn’t believe my eyes.
The uncensored clip of the slap and the obscenities that followed had accumulated over 27 million views by 7 am Monday morning, only seven hours after the Oscars themselves had ended. Instantly, I headed over to social media to see what people were saying. And to my surprise, dozens of comments and posts were calling the incident staged. That, for me, was almost more shocking than the actual incident itself. After watching it about a billion more times, I just couldn’t fathom why people would think it was faked.
So, instead of deciding everyone else is wrong, I thought I would research the event and write about it instead.
What Happened Will Smith?
The incident at hand happened Sunday, March, 27th at the 94th Academy Awards when Chris Rock came on stage to present the winner for Best Documentary. Before announcing the nominees, Rock, in typical comic fashion, decided to crack a few jokes. He made a joke about Academy Award nominees Javier Bardem and his wife Penélope Cruz, and how if she wins the award Bardem is not allowed to win, a joke built off of society’s ideas of women/wives’ behavior. Most of the audience laughed.
His next target was Jada Pinkett-Smith, who was there with her husband, Best Actor nominee Will Smith. Rock alluded to Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head, comparing her to Demi Moore’s bald-headed soldier in the 1997 film ‘G.I. Jane’. Rock’s exact words were, “Jada, I love ya. ‘G.I. Jane 2’, can’t wait to see it! Alright?” Jada was unmoved and clearly perturbed by the joke, as her hair loss is due to alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes some to all of the hair on the body to fall off. The audience themselves gave some groaning and a handful of laughs, but nothing too celebratory. Pinkett-Smith’s husband Will, though, was laughing when the camera cut to him initially, a moment many have argued the meaning over.
The camera cuts back to Rock who is trying to laugh off the poor taste. But before we can move on, he says a comedic “uh-oh!”, followed by the crowd’s unanimous sounds of anticipation. The camera cuts out to a wide shot and there is Will Smith in all his 6’2 glory hustling (almost swaggering) down the length of the Dolby Theater stage, grounding his feet firmly in front of Chris Rock, and then planting a hard smack across his face. The audience has no unanimous verdict on how to respond, so some laugh gasp, laugh, or cheer, as Rock readjusts himself. Rock says, “wow!” with his classic smile, taking the hit like a champ. As Smith walks back to his seat, the comedian tries to loosen the tension, saying, “Will Smith just smacked the [explitive] out of me.” followed by another laugh.
But if the slap wasn’t enough, Smith, from his seat next to his wife, interrupts Rock by shouting, “Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth!” And when Rock replies, “Wow, dude, it was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke,” Smith doubles down, this time his offense pouring out as he repeats the same demand, a roar that made the famous theater the quietest it’s ever been on television, to which Rock responded, “I’m going to, okay?” accompanied by some slow blinks and a shaking of his head. After a moment of trying to collect his thoughts, Rock looks away, then back, saying what everyone was thinking, “That was the… greatest night in the history of television.”
Since then, thousands of memes have been made, hundreds of articles written, and the word “alopecia” is the first result when I type “a” into my search bar. Millions of people watched this event happen in real-time, and yet some still say it’s staged. Why would they say that, and why would the Oscars even stage it?
What’s the Big Deal? They’re just Jokes.
For a long time, I’ve struggled with the fine line between a joke and something that crosses the line. But recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s true, people can joke about anything, but it’s the company you tell those jokes in that should be taken into account. And the jokes Rock delivered were not apropos for the national broadcast.
His joke about Penélope Cruz, although it appeared to be funny to her and Bardem, was an old-school quip that maybe should have been left for one of his Netflix specials. And then his crack at Jada was just in poor taste.
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Jada Pinkett-Smith has been open about her battle with alopecia since 2018, a condition that she in no way takes lightly. She had described the experience as “terrifying” and “scary”. Her hair was a big part of her life, a “beautiful ritual,” she said, “and [I loved] having the choice to have hair or not — and then one day be like, ‘Oh my god, I might not have that choice.” In years since her diagnosis, the ‘Red Table Talk’ host has publicly embraced her condition, posting photos of her freshly shaved crown next to her daughter’s, talking about putting rhinestones on her head, and sharing that her husband “loves” the bald look.
To some, her good faith might be a sign that she would take jokes on the matter lightly. But, just because someone is embracing their own condition, doesn’t mean they’re ready to have others take cracks at it yet.
Reality Television Cynicism
We have been raised to believe that reality television is real, but also to know that it’s fake, a dichotomy that many of us have grown accustomed to. In fact, because of the layers and layers of manipulation the footage goes through before being released to the public, the unfiltered becomes mixed in with the highly edited, creating a sort of hybrid of life that has been manufactured for maximum entertainment and the most interesting story possible.
Something I love about being part of the ‘Drag Race’ fandom is our regular awareness that the show is in fact edited to be a certain way, just like all reality TV shows. My fellow fans and I discuss how the producers are telling the story of the show just as much if not more than we talk about the contestants themselves. RuPaul himself has come out with a song titled “Blame it on the Edit”, a track poking fun at the queens who blame their villainous persona on the show on the producers who edited their story. I don’t know about other fanbases, but this one is hyper-aware of the show’s choreographed chaos. The only thing 100% real, it seems, is the talent of the queens.
Because of all of this editing and manipulation of what is presented to us as “reality”, there’s become a mistrust of all things related to fame, fortune, or public personas. And it isn’t just reality television that created this distrust. Shows like ‘Scandal’ featuring many complex and calculated publicity stunts, albeit fictional, have helped raise people’s awareness about what goes on behind the curtain: Anything and everything can be controlled.
Can We Even Tell the Difference Between the Real and the Fake Anymore?
With people disbelieving the authenticity of everything from Presidential election results to Youtuber apology videos, it makes sense that there would be speculation about beloved actor Will Smith decking beloved comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars, a show that often features sketches in between announcements. The thing that baffles me is that such speculation has turned into the genuine belief that the moment was staged. To me, the behavior was so authentic that if it were staged, the two of them deserve to be nominated for awards next year.
I come from a family of actors and writers, two professions that require an inordinate amount of behavioral studies. Since I can remember, whether it be for friendships, character studies, writing inspiration, or fun, I’ve analyzed human behavior, both when someone is acting and when someone is not. And this is not to say that I’m a human lie detector test. But I have always believed that learning how to pay attention to behavior and what it means for different people is an important life skill for everyone to develop. After all, a good percentage of our communication is nonverbal.
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Based on the behavior alone, I don’t think this interaction between Smith and Rock was staged. The way Rock was put on the spot to defuse the tension, Smith swearing on international television, Lupita Nyong’o’s eyes darting back and forth behind him, and how deathly quiet the room got afterward, all pointed me to believe this altercation was, in fact, not staged. But this is my opinion, and I have no problem being disproven if the evidence is there to back it up.
But while reading others’ opinions online and people trying to prove the slap was one way or the other, I found myself fearing that we as a society no longer believe that celebrity misbehavior – meaning outbursts, fights, etc – can be real. Celebrities are people, and people misbehave in public. It seems like a lot of people are thinking that if a celebrity acts out, it’s got to be staged, unless they have a diagnosed mental illness – but even then, there is skepticism. Can anything a celebrity does be real?
Does it Matter if It was Real?
Well, yes and no.
If the slap was fake, it brings up a lot of questions. Like, what would Smith, Rock, Pinkett-Smith, or the Academy gain from such an incident?
The only thing I can think of, if anything, is that the Oscars desired attention because of last year’s abysmal viewership. So, they set up something shocking between two figures who already have history and would both be at the show, inspired by the infamous thought process, “all publicity is good publicity”.
If the slap was staged, it makes me deeply sad that the Academy would obscure the historic wins of the evening with drama (the wins include ‘CODA’ winning all three of its nominations, Troy Kotsur becoming the second deaf actor to win an Academy Award, and Ariana Debose being the first, queer woman of color to win Best Supporting Actress), not that the Oscars are above overshadowing minorities. Also, pitting two Black men up against each other after the show’s history of racism would be a poor choice for the Academy. Or, it’s a brilliant choice, as it will forever associate the award ceremony with a historically controversial conversation about race and gender.
But if the slap was staged, it would mean that Smith went along with the Academy putting themselves in a positive light, and Smith being made out to be the villain. “I woke up so bummed out about what Will Smith did,” a member of the Academy told BBC, “To me, he stole the limelight. I don’t think that was the place to be so violent… There were children there. It was a place to celebrate.” For Will Smith to go along with a planned slap that would paint him as a violent Black man… doesn’t seem very plausible to me, especially after knowing everything he’s overcome.
Now, if the slap was real, it goes beyond Hollywood politics. Yes, it goes into race and sex just like if it were staged, but it goes into the actors themselves too. Before he is an actor, Smith is a Black man, and if there’s one thing I know about our brothers is that you don’t talk about their wives. Family is family for a reason, and if you’re not in the family, you can’t talk smack. Especially not in front of the whole world. Does that mean violence is the answer? To me, no. But his desire to defend his family makes sense to me, and I can see why some think it was extreme, and why some think it was appropriate.
In Smith’s apology post that he shared on Instagram Monday afternoon, he had this to say:
“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 am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness… I would like to apologize to the Williams Family and my ‘King Richard’ Family. I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us. I am a work in progress.”
If my theory about publicity is correct, a planned slap would warrant an apology just like a real one. But with everything Smith has done for Black communities, and the love for his family he proudly shares, I don’t think he would put all of that on the back burner so that White Hollywood could get an iconic television moment. But, then again, maybe he would. I just don’t know if his behavior afterward would be that raw and real if it weren’t authentic. Or maybe he’s just that good of an actor.
But We’re Still Talking About it, And Maybe That’s All We Need to Take from It
I still fear after all of this that no one can tell the difference between manipulated and unmanipulated behavior. But, after writing this article, I find myself saying “who cares!” and then answering the question with “I do!”
If we can’t understand each other nonverbally, then we’ve lost so much of our human connection. Reality television and social media personas have altered the way we look at each other to a point where disbelieving everything that’s in the public eye is considered a healthy baseline. It’s true, buying into fiction presented as truth can be dangerous: Giving money to fake children’s organizations, buying “organic” foods, etc. But thinking everything is a lie has its own negative impacts: If we start thinking celebrities can never be people again, then we have to ask ourselves if we even want to support celebrity life at all.
Was the slap faked? I don’t know. But it has started incredible conversations around the globe. Writer Karen Attiah wrote an opinion piece, calling attention to how Black women should really be protected. Tiffany Haddish called Smith’s defense of Jada “the most beautiful thing [she’s] ever seen.” People are educating themselves on alopecia. And hardly anyone is talking about any of the Oscar snubs, the oddly upbeat in Memoriam, or any of the other bad jokes. As I finish writing this, hundreds of articles are rushing to beat me to it (another reason why I appreciate Hollywood Insider: It’s not about the speed, it’s about the content), and there will probably be hundreds if not thousands more by the time the next Oscars roll around in 2023.
I think we should all take this moment in history to ask ourselves why we think it’s staged, why we think it’s real, and why we want to care. Because if we don’t look into ourselves and our own behavior, we’re just going to continue to feed mindlessly, and eventually never be able to tell the difference between the ‘Real Housewives’ and a real housewife, or worse, a fabricated crisis vs. a real one.
By Z Murphy
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Z Murphy (she/they) has a passion for storytelling. As a queer person of color, Z always aims to challenge their readers to look at art in a new light by putting racial and sexual identities in conversation with pop culture. With this dedication to inspiring respectful and insightful dialogue, Z is thrilled to be a part of the Hollywood Insider cohort, a media network that supports content focused on perceptive exploration rather than gossip.