No, Will Smith’s Assault at the Oscars Was Not “The Most Beautiful Thing”
Oscar producer Will Packer wanted to make the 94th Academy Awards memorable. A lot was riding on his ability to resuscitate the iconic awards show. But he certainly didn’t bargain for an unscripted, on-air physical assault by one of the world’s wealthiest and most powerful entertainers—actor, producer, and rapper Will Smith. In addition to tarnishing one of the most glamorous and feel-good events in pop culture, Smith’s unchecked rage will likely reverberate well beyond Hollywood.
The Slap Seen Round the World
At the event, just minutes before he was about to achieve the pinnacle of his own artistic success, Smith mounted the stage from his VIP seats in the Dolby Theatre and launched a forceful open-hand slap at comedian presenter Chris Rock. Rock was stunned. The audience watched in shocked silence. ABC’s audio went silent for 15 seconds as Smith persisted with a verbal assault after returning to his seat.
Remarkably, in a still underappreciated act of professional stoicism, Chris Rock pulled himself together to present the award for best documentary feature (Summer of Soul).
The fallout from Smith’s emotional display of violence has been chaotic. Rather than condemn the attack, many celebrities rallied to Smith’s defense. A-list actress Tiffany Hadish even said she thought “it was the most beautiful thing I ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.” As a single mom, she said, she appreciated Smith’s actions to stand up for his wife “even though the world might not like how it went down.”
The Backstory that Triggered Violence
The backstory on the assault is important (although not a defense of Smith’s actions). Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkette-Smith suffers from Alopecia Areata, a disease that results in hair loss. Pinkette-Smith has been open and public about her emotional struggles with the disease. Rock’s joke took direct aim at Pinkette-Smith, whose head was shaved, with a reference to the 1997 film G.I. Jane. Actress Demi Moore famously sported a close cut as a Navy SEAL in training.
Pinkett-Smith’s personal struggle with the disease and hair loss is not surprising, given the role hair styling plays within the African-American community. In fact, Rock is intimately familiar with this heritage, serving as a producer, writer, and narrator of a documentary that explores this history and connections (Good Hair). Notably, the first self-made female millionaire in the US may have been Madam C.J. Walker, an African American who built her economic empire on hair-care products focused on the Black community. African hair braiding is central to extensive litigation by the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm that defends entrepreneurs against draconian and punitive occupational licensing laws because of its cultural and practical significance.
Thus, he struck a nerve when Chris Rock made an unscripted joke about Pinkette-Smith’s shaved head. Seeing the shock and humiliation in his wife’s demeanor, Will Smith acted defensively and emotionally.
Normalizing Violence as a Response to Insult
Even though Smith apologized to Rock the following day, the fallout is likely to continue. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts has launched an inquiry into the event. It will likely explore revoking Smith’s Academy Award. Smith’s actions may have significantly impacted the personal safety of comedians who, like Rock, routinely throw barbed jokes at audiences as part of their acts (including the other hosts of the Oscars). Smith, albeit unintentionally, normalized violence as a response to perceived insults.
Indeed, Janai Nelson, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, summed up what many fear of might happen in the aftermath of the Smith’s assault: “I know we’re all still processing, but the way casual violence was normalized tonight by a collective national audience will have consequences that we can’t even fathom in the moment.” Soberingly, Smith’s son, Jaden, tweeted “That’s How We Do It” after his father’s emotional acceptance speech for Best Actor (for King Richard) where he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, but not the man he assaulted.
While unintentional, Will Smith’s highly visible assault ended up validating the use of violence to settle personal disputes on a broad scale.
This could easily be dismissed as a one-off. For Will Smith, it likely is. His apology the following Oscars explicitly apologized to Rock and clearly stated that violence is not an acceptable response to personal offenses or insults.
Violence is on the Rise in Urban America
But the larger problem is that substantial swaths of American society, particularly teenage boys in poor urban neighborhoods, are in the grip of retributive violence similar to what Smith displayed at the Academy Awards. Retribution has long been the focus of movie story lines – from the Godfather to Shang-chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings. It’s central to large swaths of Hip Hop culture (e.g., Gangster Rap). Notably, gangster rap acts NWA and Tupac Shakur are both in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
But in the aftermath of the George Floyd protests and COVID-19 lockdowns, gun violence and homicide is on the rise, particularly in America’s poor urban neighborhoods. Teenagers are murdering teenagers, often with little more provocation than a perceived insult. Retribution has been normalized as a valid response to personal offenses and perceived harms perpetrated against themselves, their friends and loved ones.
Many factors have led American society and culture to the point where an A-list celebrity can call an act of violence against another celebrity a “beautiful thing.” An unfocused, retributive drug war, a broken criminal justice system, the break-down and subsidization of family deterioration, and the glorification of violence in popular music and entertainment are just some of these factors.
Where Does Pop Culture Go From Here?
The question now is, where does popular culture go from here?
Paradoxically, our public discourse can start with the central actors in this sad drama: Will Smith and Chris Rock. Smith’s post-Oscar apology and Chris Rock’s grace and professionalism point toward a renewed embrace of liberalism and away from retribution as a behavioral touchstone for addressing injustice and harm.
Robby Soave at Reason magazine notes that liberalism and post-Enlightenment norms have dramatically reduced the acceptance of violence as a retribution-based response to personal offense. It’s a critical principle embodied in the First Amendment to the US Constitution that underlines the liberal justification for free speech and open discourse. It’s been central to building resilience and prosperity in the United States. Retributive justice, in contrast, is the province of thugs, gangs, and criminals.
Finding the way out of this morass will not be easy. It will take leadership, grace, and forgiveness. It will also take humility. As Denzel Washington counseled Smith in the immediate aftermath of his assault in the Dolby Theatre: “At your highest moment, be careful—that’s when the devil comes for you.”
It may be time to cast out the devil of retribution for a new approach to achieving justice, an approach consistent with personal freedom, protecting human dignity, and building an individualist foundation for a radically inclusive society.