That was one hard slap! How hard? Well, apparently the reverberations it caused are still being felt over a week later! It’s the story which seemingly won’t go away, so I’ll weigh in on “Slapgate.” If somehow you’ve been lucky enough to be on a tropical holiday on a beach without wi-fi for the past ten days or so, I am of course referring to an incident at this year’s Academy Awards show, in which Will Smith seemingly “lost it” and barreled on stage and hit (“slapped” seems too mild a description) comic Chris Rock in the face for making a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, Will’s wife. He then continued to yell obscenities Rock’s way from the front of the audience for some time after that. It turned out to make this year’s “Oscars” the most talked-about in years…for all the wrong reasons.
For me, some issues are very gray. Issues where one can see both sides of an argument, have difficulty really discerning the right and wrong. This, is not one of those cases. Smith was wrong. So too was the Academy itself. Rock on the other hand did nothing wrong and actually carried himself with surprising maturity given the situation.
First let’s examine the situation. The Smiths, (Will and Jada that is, not the British band) big-name stars that they are, were seated right up in the best seats, in easy sight of the people on stage. Chris Rock is a comedian, and was expected to do a few little funny bits between trophy hand-outs. As most in his position usually do, he ran through a few jokes about the night’s subject – movies, and threw in a few references to the stars he could see in the crowd. Routine for awards shows. His actual “offence” was making a joke about seeing Pinkett there and waiting for the new GI Jane movie. An obvious reference to her more-or-less shaved headed, bald appearance, reminiscent of Demi Moore in the ’90s movie he mentioned.
A fall-off-your-chair, slap-your-thigh kind of joke for the ages? Hardly. But neither was it an insult of any significance. He didn’t call her “ugly” or “fat” nor refer to her as dumb or invoke the “n-word”…he just made note that she seemed to have a bald head and playfully suggest she was making a movie about being a military cadet. Most actresses would smile politely at least and probably be pleased to even be mentioned and get the cameras pointing her way. And the initial – momentary – facial reaction of Will Smith was that. Mild amusement. His wife though, was clearly steamed. Others nearby suggested she was furious and said something to him like “you gonna let him get away with that?” and queried Will’s manliness. That’s when Will-Hulk kicked in and he stormed the stage and decked his fellow star.
Turns out Pinkett has alopecia, a term for a number of similar medical conditions which in men usually get termed “male pattern baldness.” In a nutshell, her hair’s falling out. Unfortunate, absolutely, even more so for a lady than a guy. But not cancer that could kill nor anything genuinely embarrassing like syphilis. She’s got thinning hair. If she wanted to hide that fact, she could very easily have worn a wig…many of which look more realistic than real hair these days. She could have phoned Elton John months ago and asked for his hair replacement guy’s phone number. She could have shown up wearing some low-slung cap or hat and been lauded as making a wonderful bold fashion statement. Instead she chose to not disguise it and by the look of it, shave off what hair she still had a day or two earlier. In a business all about looks and superficiality, she couldn’t be dumb enough to think that would go unnoticed.
Rock seemingly didn’t even know about her condition, but going back to the earlier point… his joke wasn’t really that “out there.” I’m not a huge fan of Chris’s but he can be funny at times. At other times, he can be a bit rude or offensive. So be it. Lenny Bruce made a career out of being considered vulgar or offensive, being arrested for it several times. Now many consider him one of the best stand-up comedians of all-time. Don Rickles, a favorite of late night shows for decades, once said “every night when I go out on stage, there’s always one nagging fear … I’m always afraid that there is one person in the audience that I’m not going to offend.” Most of what we call “comedy” today is offensive to at least some people and pushes boundaries. There are some out there these days who are popular that I find dumb, rude and all-around offensive. My way of dealing with them? Not watching their shows.
If Will Smith really had a problem with the innocuous little joke, he should have gone up to Rock afterwards and told him – with his words, not his fist – that it was disrespectful to his wife and fill him in on her medical condition. I wouldn’t be surprised if Rock would have apologized and sent her a bottle of champagne or a bouquet of roses to let her know. But instead, he acts like the hyper-aggressive fool so many of his colleagues in the audience get paid millions to play on the big screen, hitting first, crying later. Not only does it set the wrong example for children who are fans of his movies but as the Today Show‘s Craig Melvin railed it perpetuates “this long held perception that men of color can’t control their rage and anger.” It’s doing ordinary, peaceful Black people no favors when the only thing anyone is talking about after an awards show is one angry Black man assaulting another Black man there.
Then there’s the show’s producers and the Academy itself, who say they “asked” Smith to leave but didn’t press the issue when he refused. “Asked”? If you have someone at an event who disrupts the ceremony and commits what would normally be construed a criminal act on stage, you don’t “ask” them to leave. You tell them to, and if they refuse, you remember why you pay to have security at such events and make sure they do leave. Instead, they let him get up on stage and accept an award and give a teary speech minutes later. I’m not in the faction who believe he should have lost the award automatically. He’d won it based on a role he played in a film months earlier, he was the one chosen for it and deserves to keep it. But he didn’t deserve to get back up on that stage that night and revel in the glory and make a self-serving speech.
Everyone, Will Smith included, have bad days and do something ill-advised at one time or another. In the end, this will all go away. Smith will go back to making movies; Rock will do more stand-up routines and now have some more material to use in them. But to a lot of people like myself, I’ll long think that despite Will’s height advantage , Chris Rock is the far bigger man of the two.