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Should Will Smith have been allowed to collect an Oscar after he slapped Chris Rock?

Will Smith holds his award for best actor in a Leading Role for <em>King Richard</em> as he attends the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.
Patrick T. Fallon
AFP via Getty Images
Will Smith holds his award for best actor in a Leading Role for King Richard as he attends the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party.

Editor's note: The following contains an embedded video that contains offensive language.

This was not how I expected to feel last night.

Watching Will Smith stalk off the stage with an Oscar for best actor in hand, I had anticipated pride and admiration in seeing a popular and hardworking performer finally ascend to join Hollywood's most creatively respected Black actors, alongside Denzel, Sidney, Morgan and Samuel L.

Instead, I first felt bewilderment, then anger. How, I wondered, was Smith allowed to climb onstage to accept an award, not long after walking up and slapping comedian Chris Rock when the comic cracked an unflattering joke about Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith?

Why was he given long minutes to offer a tearful spiel about how Richard Williams — the man he just won an Oscar for playing in the film King Richard — "was a fierce defender of his family"? As if that somehow explained why it was OK to assault a performer during a live telecast of Hollywood's biggest awards show?

Smith did apologize ... to the academy and to his fellow nominees. But he didn't apologize for what he actually did wrong. Even odder, the academy's Twitter account posted a message last night, reading, in part, "The Academy does not condone violence of any form." Except it just had.

(According to multiple press reports Monday, the academy has launched a formal review into the incident, "and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law," they wrote in a statement.)

What was everyone else in that room thinking, as many A-list actors, writers, directors and producers rose to their feet to applaud Smith as his speech concluded, celebrating someone they had just seen strike a fellow performer? An action that was — by the way — also illegal?

In that moment, all the platitudes voiced that night about yearning for peace in the world and art serving as a balm in troubled times felt very hollow, indeed.

Oscarcast producers fail to step up

When the moment came for the Oscar show's producers to step up and say that someone who commits violence on live television doesn't get their moment in the winners' circle, the producers blinked.

Hollywood royalty won. Violence was indeed condoned.

And they let one of the world's biggest movie stars pretend that his angry outburst of machismo was somehow an effort to "protect" his family from a joke that had already been told.

To be sure, Chris Rock pushed the envelope with his joke about Jada Pinkett Smith. "Jada, I love you ... G.I. Jane 2; can't wait to see it," he said, looking at her close-cropped hair. He may not have realized that her hair is short because she has alopecia, a condition that causes hair loss, which the actress has spoken about publicly for years.

Bad blood between the Smiths and Rock may go back a while. When he hosted the 2016 Oscars, Rock cracked an even tougher joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, making fun of her decision to boycott the ceremony over a lack of diversity among nominees during the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.

"Ain't she on a TV show?" Rock said then about Jada Pinkett Smith, who was co-starring on the Fox show Gotham at the time. "Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna's panties. I wasn't invited."

From footage of the show Sunday night, it seemed that Will Smith initially laughed at the G.I. Jane joke, but grew angry as others in the room moaned and Jada Pinkett Smith first rolled her eyes, then glared at the comic. Moments later, Will Smith stalked onstage, slapped Rock and returned to his seat, where he mouthed in a way he seemed to realize the cameras would capture: "Keep my wife's name out your f***ing mouth." Even as ABC cut an embarrassingly long amount of audio out of that moment, Will Smith's anger and insults were easy to see.

Of course, the incident rattled Rock, who stumbled through what he was supposed to do — introduce the nominees for best documentary feature. One of the worst things about Smith's action was how it drew attention away from other important moments in the Oscarcast, including a win by Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson as director of the movie named best documentary feature, Summer of Soul.

To his credit, Questlove — the drummer, producer, author and leader of The Roots, which serves as house band for The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon — gave a wonderful acceptance speech wishing his father was alive to see his improbable-yet-well-deserved victory. But I couldn't believe that a moment which should have been a triumph for the culture — a rap producer/musician winning an Oscar for directing his first film! — was derailed by another Black man (and fellow Philadelphia native) who chose public violence over a reasonable response.

Smith should have apologized to Questlove for nearly ruining his moment. Instead of celebrating the drummer/producer's enormous achievement, many in the TV audience were still trying to figure out if they saw an awkward comedy bit or if one of the world's most successful actors actually just slapped one of Hollywood's most successful comics.

The actor also should have apologized to the families of everyone featured in the In Memoriam segment paying tribute to those who died over the past year. Before the segment started, many in the room were still buzzing over the slap incident, drowning out the beginning of the segment.

Black Hollywood heavyweights supported Smith

But what bothered me most, after The Slap Seen Around the World, was how the giants of Black Hollywood immediately circled to protect Will Smith.

According to The Hollywood Reporter, Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry spoke with Smith after the slap but before he went onstage to accept the Oscar. Variety reported that Oscarcast producer Will Packer also spoke with Smith (Onstage, Smith said Washington told him "At your highest moment, be careful. That's when the devil comes for you" — as if some outside force decided to walk onstage and slap another man with his hand.)

As Will Smith left the stage, the cameras showed tennis stars Serena and Venus Williams standing and applauding. Smith has always been aware of his status as a role model and beloved figure among Black people, so to let stand a moment where he responded to a joke with violence — especially after so many young Black men have lost their lives in violent altercations over insults or arguments — feels like a betrayal.

Now that the dust is settling on all this, I still have questions. Will those people who complain so much about Hollywood's "cancel culture" stand up for a comic who got assaulted for telling a joke? Will anyone famous who stood and applauded Smith after his acceptance speech be asked to explain their actions?

Will the Academy or Oscarcast producers explain why they allowed someone to hit a performer — a friend sent me a text joking that Ricky Gervais is lucky he's not still hosting the Golden Globes — and then collect an award?

Personally, I'm hoping Will Smith eventually apologizes for what he really did wrong: ruining a moment when we all wanted to celebrate Black excellence, by acting in a way that reinforces old stereotypes and makes us all question what he really stands for as a man.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.