Will Smith and Chris Rock
Well, it seems to be the talk of the town today: actor Will Smith struck comedian Chris Rock in the face live on the Oscars last night after the latter made a joke about the former's wife, specifically about her hair or lack thereof.
You can watch the tense and awkwardly uncomfortable exchange here:
So like many people talking about this incident, I have thoughts.
Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's shaved head by referencing G.I. Jane, the movie for which actress Demi Moore shaved her head.
Now Chris Rock may or may not have known that Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, a condition which causes the inflicted to lose their hair, often in patches. Pinkett Smith wrote about this on social media in 2018, saying, "Now at this point, I can only laugh. Y’all know I’ve been struggling with alopecia...Mama’s gonna have to take it down to the scalp so nobody thinks she got brain surgery or something. Me and this alopecia are going to be friends … period!” So the shaved head is her way of dealing with her condition.
And it conceivable and entirely likely that she is sensitive about her condition, and thus, if someone makes a joke at her expense based around that, it might be embarrassing to her.
It is also conceivable and highly likely that her husband, Will Smith, knows she is sensitive about her alopecia and resulting hairstyle and that as someone who loves his wife, might rashly come to her defense if he feels she is being mocked or dishonored, although it feels like he made the moment more about him than her, as this article from The Washington Post declares.
Now I don't know if Chris Rock knew that Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia. I didn't. I only found out last night after wondering why Will Smith was so incensed over what felt like a fairly innocuous joke. But I assume Rock knew. And if he did know about Pinkett Smith's condition, then the joke feels pretty tasteless, cheap, and ill-conceived to me. If he was ignorant of the fact, the joke, while not particularly funny, feels pretty harmless to me.
But here's the thing. If you're a celebrity at the Oscars, especially one near or on the front row, chances are high that you will be roasted by a comedian. It's kind of par for the course. And there have been far more brutal and personal jokes in the past than the one directed at Pinkett Smith last night.
It's also the job of a comedian to make jokes, and often comedians' jokes make light of some of the worst and most uncomfortable things we face in the world. I often think we have become so overly sensitive and "politically correct" as a society that we forget that comedians through the ages have often used humor to shine a light on sensitive, uncomfortable, even taboo topics. But I don't think poking fun at Pinkett Smith in this case was particularly kind or funny.
Whether Chris Rock knew about Jada Pinkett Smith's alopecia or not, the joke was not a particularly great joke, but while it may have bothered or offended both Smiths, I certainly don't think it merited the outburst of violence that occurred.
Also, rewatch the clip above. While the camera may not capture everything, it does appear that Will Smith actually laughs at the joke after Chris Rock delivers it. Now clearly, Jada Pinkett Smith (on the right) is not amused. In the screenshot below, she has just finished rolling her eyes at the joke, clearly annoyed. Nearly four seconds have occurred since Rock delivered the punchline. But look who's still smiling.
Of course, it's possible Will Smith didn't register the joke at first or is just smiling politely, but he does seem to be laughing at it.
The camera cuts away from the Smiths at this point, so what happened between this point and the moment Smith strode up onto the stage to strike Rock is unclear. I can infer (perhaps erroneously) that once Will Smith saw how the joke affected his wife, a woman I presume he loves very much, his attitude toward the joke and the deliverer of the joke changed.
So now Smith chooses to get up onstage during a live telecast that 15.3 million people are watching and slap Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about his wife.
Chris Rock is clearly taken aback by what I'm sure to him felt like an overreaction, saying as Smith leaves the stage in anger, "Wow! Will Smith just smacked the sh*t out of me." The audience laughs. They still are under the impression that this is a bit or was staged for comic effect.
But it is clear in the next moments that this altercation was not scripted. Rock, still stunned, tries to continue with the presentation when Will Smith yells from his seat, "Keep my wife's name out yo' f***in' mouth!" Now members of the audience gasp, realizing this is not a joke.
Rock tries to smooth things over. He says in disbelief, "Wow, dude. It was a G.I. Jane joke." Will Smith says, "Yes" and adamantly repeats at full volume and with more intensity, "Keep my wife's name out your f***in' mouth!"
The audience is now dead silent.
"I was going to, okay?" Chris Rock responds. One can tell now that Rock is shaken and flustered by what has happened as he stumbles over his words and tries to get things back on track. "That was, uh...the greatest night in the history of television, okay?" The audience laughs uncomfortably.
Rock seems to take a breath to regain his composure and says, "Okay."
So now the vibe in the room has been altered considerably, which cohost Amy Schumer makes a joke about minutes later, trying to break the tension by saying, "I've been getting out of the Spiderman costume [that she had previously been wearing]. Did I miss anything? There's like a different vibe in here," to which the audience laughs.
The winners of the documentary award Chris Rock is presenting, while ecstatic to win, I'm sure, certainly felt odd as their big moment was overshadowed by the altercation. As one source quoted by Page Six said, "What can one say? The air was taken out of the room by everyone, so how can it not affect the moment?"
One of the winners, musician Questlove, was asked about the altercation during his post-win press briefing. He says, "I’m not talking about that. This is about the Harlem Cultural Festival," understandably wishing to talk about his film rather than this unfortunate incident which has not only overshadowed his own moment, his documentary, and his win, but the rest of the Oscars ceremony and even Will Smith's own win as Best Actor a short time later.
In his own acceptance speech, Smith sort of explains his actions and sort of apologizes...except to the man he hit.
"Richard Williams [the role for which Smith was nominated] was a fierce defender of his family...I'm being called on in my life to love people. And to protect people and to be a river to my people.
"I know, to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse. You gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and pretend like that's okay."
Now did Chris Rock disrespect Jada Pinkett Smith? I suppose he did the same way many comedians mock others, sometimes with very careless jokes.
But didn't Will Smith equally disrespect Chris Rock by smacking him on live television while he was doing his job, well or not? Didn't Smith disrespect the winners of the Oscar that was being presented by overshadowing their moment with his own ego? Didn't he disrespect both the live audience and the viewers at home by supplanting their evening with his pique of outrage not to mention leaving unsaid that somehow assaulting another human being with violence was somehow okay?
Couldn't Smith have found a more productive way to handle the situation? Could he not have grabbed Chris Rock privately some time later on (or got his people to call Rock's people) and said, "Hey, dude, I really don't appreciate the joke you made about my wife. It was insensitive and mean" and given Rock an opportunity to apologize.
Or could not Smith have said in the speech he was presumed to win, "And to my wife, Jada, you know, there might have been some disrespect thrown at you tonight, but I think you're beautiful, and you and I are both bigger than those unkind remarks."
But no, he throws a live hissy fit and assaults a man.
And look, I'm not saying Chris Rock is blameless here. Words are weapons, too, and the way we use them can hurt or help, demean or lift, and bring joy or bring pain. His words, whether intended as a joke or not, we're especially unkind if he knew of Pinkett Smith's condition and mildly annoying if he didn't.
For his part, Chris Rock declined to press charges against Will Smith. The Academy is conducting an inquiry, although they probably should have escorted Will Smith out immediately after the incident.
After the incident occurred, during commercial breaks, stars like Denzel Washington, Tyler Perry, and Bradley Cooper were trying to comfort Will Smith, who may have been distraught by his own behavior, the joke, or both.
Smith later revealed something Washington had said to him: "Be careful at your highest moment… that's when the devil comes for you." And it did indeed seem to come for Smith, and he will be remembered more for this display than for his win on what should have been a more celebratory and joyous night for him.
Also in his acceptance speech, Will Smith had talked about trying to be a "vessel of love" and wanting to "shine a light" on people, but his violent, angry reaction to Rock's joke didn't show much love or light, and while he apologized to both the Academy and his fellow nominees, he never apologized to Chris Rock...until today.
While writing this post, I learned that Will Smith issued the following public apology:
"Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. 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. 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 also like to apologize to the Academy, the producers of the show, all the attendees and everyone watching around the world. 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."
Good. He should. His actions were out of line.
Truth is, I like Will Smith. I read his book recently and really enjoyed it. I think he would readily admit he is a flawed man and maybe a bit too quick to anger. I also do think he is a man who is extremely passionate but also has an incredible ego, and those can be a bad mix.
My understanding is that both stars have worked things out and are putting the incident behind them. But I do think there are lessons to be learned.
Words have power. Use them wisely.
Acts done rashly in a state of anger are hard to come back from.
Be sensitive and loving.
Actions have consequences.
Don't let ego get in your way.
It was an unfortunate incident all around.
Oh, and as Richard Marx tweeted, "Hey professional comedians: be on notice! From now on, you need to make sure your jokes don’t offend people. Especially extremely attractive, famous and exorbitantly wealthy people!"