Will Smith’s Oscars Slap Is the Culmination of Long, Complicated History

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Will Smith slapped Chris Rock across the face onstage at the Oscars on Sunday night, stunning viewers across the world and causing a social media storm.

The Best Actor winner has since publicly apologized to the comedian. “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive,” he posted on Instagram. “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.”

Debate, however, continues to rage. While some viewers saw the slap as an overreaction to a crass joke, others began pointing out the decades-long personal and cultural history in play: of Rock’s continued needling of Pinkett Smith as well as his attitude toward Black women’s hair; of Pinkett Smith’s health issues; of Smith’s history with trauma. Here’s the context that led up to the confrontation.

Rock insults Pinkett Smith

More than two hours into the Oscars, Rock came onstage to present Best Documentary. True to form as a stand-up comic, Rock began sending unscripted barbs out into the crowd. After making quips about Denzel Washington and Javier Bardem, Rock turned his attention to Jada Pinkett Smith, saying he was looking forward to seeing her in G.I. Jane II. Pinkett Smith was sporting a buzzcut, just like Demi Moore’s character in the 1997 film G.I. Jane.

But Pinkett Smith has been open about her struggles with hair loss and bald spots caused by alopecia. In December, she documented her decision to shave her head on Instagram. “Mama’s gonna have to take it down to the scalp so nobody thinks she got brain surgery or something,” she wrote. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends … period!”

Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes after Rock’s joke, while Smith was shown laughing. The Oscars telecast then went mute for a spell as Smith, who was sitting in the front row, strode onstage and hit Rock across the face. Telecasts in Japan and other countries aired the sound of the slap, as well as the exchange that came next: “Will Smith just smacked he sh-t out of me,” said a stunned Rock. Smith responded: “Keep my wife’s name out your f-cking mouth,” and repeated the phrase.

The moment sent the Dolby Theater into a stunned panic and caused a firestorm on Twitter. A few minutes later, Diddy came onstage and tried to defuse the situation, saying: “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this like family at the Gold Party.”

On Twitter, Vanity Fair reporter Rebecca Ford reported that Washington comforted and counseled the Smiths after the altercation.

And a video from Scott Feinberg of The Hollywood Reporter showed Washington and Tyler Perry huddled with Smith during a commercial break, gesturing at him to shake off the confrontation. The video then shows Smith being consoled by Bradley Cooper on the way back to his seat.

Rock’s history with the couple

It’s not the first time Rock has made a joke about the couple at the Oscars. When Rock hosted the Oscars in 2016, he brought the couple up in the context of the #OscarsSoWhite boycott, which Pinkett Smith supported. “Jada’s going to boycott the Oscars? Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna‘s panties. I wasn’t invited!” he said.

Pinkett Smith brushed off the insult when she was asked about it a few days later by paparazzi. “It comes with the territory, we gotta keep it moving,” she said. “We got a lot of stuff we gotta handle, a lot of stuff going on in our world right now.”

Rock has crossed paths with Smith and Pinkett Smith many times over their collective years in the limelight. Rock appeared on a 1995 episode of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, playing Smith’s character’s date for an evening. Rock and Pinkett Smith were part of the main voice cast of the Madagascar franchise; a 2012 video interview shows them joking around together about the movie and music.

The year before that, Rock delivered a routine about Smith on The Late Show With David Letterman, pretending to complain about the success of Smith’s children, Jaden and Willow Smith. “The guy’s already taking parts from me. Now, his kids are taking parts from my kids. Will Smith, don’t you have enough?” he told Letterman.

In 2018, Rock responded snarkily to an Instagram post Smith wrote celebrating his ex-wife Sheree Zampino’s birthday, writing: “Wow. You have a very understanding wife.”

And on Sunday night, Rock’s joke wasn’t the first of the evening to target the couple. When co-host Regina Hall delivered a bit insinuating she wanted to sleep with many of the famous actors at the Oscars, she poked fun at the couple’s marital situation, which Smith has acknowledged is an open relationship. “You’re married, but you know what? You’re on the list, and it looks like Jada approved you, so you get on up here!” Hall said to Smith.

Smith reflects on the incident

But the drama wasn’t over. Smith was still heavily favored to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in King Richard, which was slated to be announced later in the telecast. For about an hour, viewers both in the Dolby Theater and at home held their collective breath for the possibility that Smith would be forced to address the incident on center stage.

Eventually, Smith’s name was called by the cast of Pulp Fiction, and he came to the stage, teary-eyed, and delivered a five minute acceptance speech. In the speech, he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, and drew parallels between himself and his character Williams—the father of Venus and Serena Williams—arguing that his actions amounted to him standing up for his family. “I want to apologize to the Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees,” he said before adding, “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.”

Read More: Will Smith Addressed Slapping Chris Rock During His Oscars Acceptance Speech for Best Actor

Smith’s allusions to Williams—who he called a “fierce defender of his family”—also echoed Smith’s own traumatic past. In his 2021 memoir Will, Smith wrote about witnessing his father physically abuse his mother, and the guilt he felt for years afterward because he didn’t intervene.

“That moment in that bedroom, probably more than any other moment in my life, has defined who I am today,” he wrote. “Within everything that I have done since then – the awards and accolades, the spotlights and the attention, the characters and the laughs – there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day. For failing her in that moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

Attitudes toward Black women’s hair

While Rock’s original comments on Sunday were directed specifically at Pinkett Smith’s appearance, many viewers contended they fit into a much larger history of the demeaning of Black women’s hair. In 2009, Rock produced and starred in a documentary called Good Hair, in which he explored the norms and societal pressures surrounding the hair of Black women—particularly with regards to the ways in which Black women are pushed to live up to the beauty standards of white women. The film was positively received at the time, albeit mostly by white critics. But on Sunday and Monday, many Black women took to Twitter to reassess the movie and Rock’s seemingly hostile attitude toward the film’s Black female subjects.

One of those women, Sheila Bridges, had been interviewed by Rock in the film about shaving her head due to alopecia. On Monday, Bridges criticized Rock on Instagram, writing: “Shame on you @chrisrock. Didn’t we sit down and talk at length about how painfully humiliating and difficult it is to navigate life as a bald woman in a society that is hair obsessed?”

An overflow of reactions

The reaction to the incident was deafening, with opinions flowing in from all angles. Tiffany Haddish, who was at the Oscars, told People Magazine that it was “the most beautiful thing I ever seen,” adding, “When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife, that meant so much to me.”

Will’s son, Jaden Smith, also seemed to respond positively to his father’s actions on Twitter on Sunday night:

On the other side, comedians like Kathy Griffin worried about the ripple effects that could come from a highly publicized display of violence in reaction to a joke:

The Los Angeles police department issued a statement following the Oscars alluding to the incident, saying that the person who was slapped declined to press charges.

Meanwhile, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also put out a statement on Twitter, writing that it does “not condone violence in any form.” It later said that it would “review Smith’s actions and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.”

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