The Slap Heard Round The World: Improbably, Will Smith And Chris Rock May Have Saved The Oscars

Wow, what a night, huh? And to think, right up until “the event” happened, I had been all set to write about the Oscar telecast’s predictably disastrous attempts at populism. Before the slap, the wildest things that happened at the Academy Awards were a tribute to The Flash in Justice League and a 30-second clip from Army Of The Dead.

God bless Will Smith and Chris Rock for saving us all from that piece. Instead, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith being in line to star in GI Jane 2 — “Jada, I love you, ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it” — about which Will Smith seemed to laugh at first. Jada Pinkett, meanwhile, very clearly made a “that wasn’t funny” face, after which Will Smith, sitting in the front row, stormed the stage and…

…wait, did he just smack Chris Rock?

The hit itself looked like a staged punch at first, or at least that was how I interpreted it. Until ABC dropped the sound — which we later found out consisted of Rock saying “Wow, Will Smith just slapped the shit out of me,” followed by Will Smith bellowing “keep my wife’s name out your f*cking mouth.”

Since then all available evidence showed it was indeed a real slap. That Will Smith took offense to what was apparently a joke about Jada Pinkett being bald (could’ve also been a joke about her looking buff or being in sub-par movies), which, given how public she has been with her struggles with alopecia could be considered a beyond-the-pale joke about a medical condition. (Is there anything the Smith family hasn’t been public with? Oh right, Scientology!)

And fair enough. It definitely wasn’t a great joke. One of the funnier parts of this whole situation to me was that I imagine Chris Rock probably had a whole list of meaner jokes about the Smith family that he wanted to say — about Will and Jada’s famously open marriage and her affairs, about their annoying kids and alleged Scientology — before taking what he probably imagined was the moral high road, settling on a “safe” one about her being bald instead.

Poor Chris Rock can’t catch a break at the Oscars! Let us not forget, this was the same guy who in 2005 made a joke about Jude Law being in a lot of movies, that Sean Penn apparently found so offensive that he took it upon himself to get up and say that Jude Law was a really good actor, actually.

This whole incident was all but guaranteed the following day to devolve into a deeply entrenched battle of “it’s never okay to joke about someone’s disability” vs “violence is never the answer.” I’m here to say, it really doesn’t need to. This was a situation that worked itself out perfectly!

Chris Rock made a bad joke. I don’t imagine even he would claim that was the edgiest joke he’d ever done. It felt more like a compromise joke, hence part of his confusion (in the words of Phil Rosenthal, “make the show you want to make, they’re gonna cancel it anyway”). I think Chris Rock would acknowledge, and most comedians realize on some level, that making jokes about people involves some risk of getting smacked. It’s part of the danger, but also part of the allure and the fun.

The way Rock then handled the slap, narrating it as it happened, staying on stage, and finishing presenting the award he was there for, made him look like an absolute pro, regardless of what one thought of the joke. Part of the reason I had a hard time believing it wasn’t staged at first was that Rock never cowered or put his hands up in a defensive posture the way one naturally does during a beating. He didn’t seem like he ever thought he was ever in legitimate danger. And after the briefest acknowledgement of what happened, he riffed right on through it and carried right on with what he was doing. The man got smacked onstage at the Oscars and finished reading the teleprompter!

It felt like Chris Rock crossed the line, Will Smith checked him for it, and Rock responded, in essence, “touché.” Neither man left humiliated, and everyone carried on. Will Smith defended his wife’s honor (in his mind, at least), and Rock cemented his reputation as a pro and a fearless comedian.

The problem with the “violence is never the answer” fundamentalists is that it assumes that what happened here involved “violence.” Chris Rock didn’t react like he was ever genuinely in fear for his safety and it didn’t seem to me like Smith intended for him to be. It seemed more like Smith just wanted to let Rock know that he crossed the line, and Rock got the message. Both men left with their dignity, Jada Pinkett seemed to get what she wanted (I guess?), and everyone got something better to talk about the next day than a clip of Johnny Depp in Minimata somehow making it to the telecast (oh, I had jokes). This was the rare moment of society working the way it should!

As for the joke, it wasn’t great. And yeah you shouldn’t joke about peoples’ disabilities (or, given that Chris Rock maybe possibly didn’t know about the disability, a Black woman’s hair). I imagine even Chris Rock would probably admit that. It’s still possible to commiserate. The Smiths are one of those families that seem to want simultaneously to overshare their personal lives while declaring their personal lives off-limits to scrutiny. This was a family that went public about their open marriage (or whatever they have going on) on a talk show that Jada hosts with her mother and daughter. So to say “aw, the poor Smiths were just minding their business and some jerk got personal with them!” is a little disingenuous, even if the joke itself could fairly be deemed out of bounds.

There exists a certain category of celebrity, the details of whose personal life you’re constantly bombarded with despite never having sought out, that you can’t help but feel an oddly personal aggrievement towards. At this point, every time I see, say, a Kardashian’s name in a news story I never wanted to read in the first place, my knee-jerk reaction is to wish that they’d get hit by a bus. I don’t literally wish that, and I know it’s not a thing you should wish on people, but I feel like I’m forced to hear so much about these people so often, all completely unsolicited, that I can’t help but mentally lash out, in violent and personal ways. What other ways even are there at this point? Mentally lashing out politely hasn’t seemed to work. It seems like maybe Chris Rock wanted to take a swipe at the Smith family’s overexposure in this way, but tried to dial it back a little, and ended up doing it poorly.

So then Will Smith got to get up, bellow “LEAVE MY WIFE OUT OF THIS!” and in that rare moment, be plausibly justified in doing so.

This was not only perfect for the Smiths, but perfect for the telecast. Just when it felt like the hubbub over the incident had finally died down (pity Questlove, and all the winners whose big moments were immediately, inexorably, helplessly overshadowed) it started to dawn on me: Wait, Will Smith was here because he was nominated for an Oscar. Which he’s heavily favored to win. Meaning… this guy might have to go back on stage!

Suddenly I was positively thrilled for Will Smith to win an Oscar for a movie I didn’t like in which I thought he did a hammy job. Has an Oscars telecast ever felt so electric?

Almost as soon as I had the thought, Will Smith was being announced as the winner. He got back up on stage and gave a speech that felt like a surreal combination of defining moment, public breakdown, and audition for a leadership position in some future cult.

If anything made the slapping incident seem like it was possibly staged in some way, it was the way it seemed to dovetail all too perfectly with the theme of Will Smith’s acceptance speech. (Did he plan that, or is Will Smith just that good at riffing? Did he sit in the front row knowing he was going to slap the first person who mentioned his wife all along?)

Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I ever met. I got to protect Saniyya and Demi, the two actresses that played Venus and Serena. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.

King Richard was a weird image management exercise produced by the same family it depicts, about a controlling father who succeeded at turning his children into… well, champions if you’re being charitable, meal tickets if you’re not… and suddenly Will Smith had given himself full justification to turn the man into even more of a saint.

Richard Williams was not just a great sports dad but a “defender of his family.” Just like Will Smith, who had been anointed by God Himself to smack Chris Rock in the mouth over an unfair bald joke. (I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised that Will Smith thinks a borderline sociopathically single-minded guy who was desperate to make his kids famous is some kind of saint).

This was one of the other reasons the incident seemed like it might’ve been staged at first: Will Smith sort of always acts like he’s playing Will Smith in a play about Will Smith. (We’ll leave the patronizing language towards his actresses aside for now). He went on:

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.

Can I just say: smacking a guy over insulting his wife isn’t why Will Smith looks crazy. Just like “loving his family too much” isn’t why people said Richard Williams was crazy. It’s probably more because Smith is the kind of person who uses an incident like this to call himself “a vessel of love” and “a river to my people.”

Smith went on to ask forgiveness from The Academy (for what? being God’s anointed family protector, Lawrence of Arabia and Richard Williams rolled into one?), and from his fellow nominees, and ended the speech saying “I’m hoping the Academy invites me back.”

Me too! The Academy should do more than forgive Will Smith, they should celebrate him. Actors making preposterously self-aggrandizing speeches about dubious art is exactly why many of us watch this show. All of the best actors tend towards being bizarrely comfortable having an emotional moment in front of thousands of people and a kind of pathological grandiosity.

That Will Smith, with a big assist from Chris Rock, managed to give himself plausible justification for this kind of talk was arguably one of the greatest things that has ever happened at the Academy Awards. I don’t know if Will Smith is God’s chosen vessel for love, or the chosen protector of home and hearth, but it seems fairly clear that the Fresh Prince has become King of Celebrities. Say what you will about the man, he gave us a show, which, after all, is his job. All hail King Will, the greatest celebrity who ever lived.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter. More reviews here.