It's been less than 24 hours since an Oscars moment set the internet aflame. Host Chris Rock threw a joke at Jada Pinkett Smith, and her husband Will Smith walked up on stage and slapped him across the face. It was a moment that left the audience (both in person and behind screens) stunned and feeling some kind of way about the whole thing. Since then, furor has erupted online as people snipe back and forth at who was worse, and who was justified in their behavior. Can a comedian joke about anything, no holds barred? Or is a person justified in - quite literally - clapping back if a line is crossed? Here's a look at the history behind the tense relationship between Smith and Rock, and the context as to why he reacted the way he did.
Will Smith Suspended for 10 years
It's been just under two weeks since the "slap heard 'round the world" and Smith now knows the disciplinary action he will be facing from the Academy: a 10-year suspension.
The Academy's board of governors released a statement as they met Friday to discuss Smith's future, per NPR, "'We want to express our deep gratitude to Mr. Rock for maintaining his composure under extraordinary circumstances. We also want to thank our hosts, nominees, presenters and winners for their poise and grace during our telecast,' read a statement by the Academy. 'This action we are taking today in response to Will Smith's behavior is a step toward a larger goal of protecting the safety of our performers and guests, and restoring trust in the Academy. We also hope this can begin a time of healing and restoration for all involved and impacted.'"
Smith has apologized since the incident, saying in part, "I betrayed the trust of the Academy. I deprived other nominees and winners of their opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated for their extraordinary work. I am heartbroken."
What Happened at the Oscars Between Will and Chris?
It seemed like a normal night. Oscar viewership has been flagging in recent years, and an effort to boycott the awards show until they take a stronger stance in favor of diversity has thrown the Academy Awards out of favor. Last night, however, was a show to remember - if for all the wrong reasons. Host Rock decided to make what seems on the surface to be a tacky and tasteless joke - although there's more under the surface, which we'll get to in a minute. "Jada, I love you. 'G.I. Jane 2' I can't wait to see it alright?" And the audience was stunned to see Smith get up out of his seat, stroll onto the stage, and deliver a stinging slap to Rock across the face. He repeated "Keep my wife's name out of your f--king mouth!" twice. After the incident, Smith was seen being consoled by Denzel Washington as he looked clearly emotional.
Rock was clearly stunned, and did not in fact make another joke about Pinkett Smith before moving on to the rest of the evening's lineup. AP reports via Yahoo, "The joke missed, badly. Smith walked onto the stage from his front-row seat and took a swing at Rock with an open palm, generating a loud smack. Smith walked back to his seat and shouted for Rock to leave Pinkett Smith alone. Rock replied that he was just making a 'G.I. Jane' joke — and Smith yelled back at him a second time.
Smith shouted at Rock to 'keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth,' and the crowd hushed as it became clear this was no act.
The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers at home. At the commercial break, presenter Daniel Kaluuya came up to hug Smith, and Denzel Washington escorted him to the side of the stage. The two talked and hugged and Tyler Perry came over to talk as well.
Smith shared what Washington told him: 'At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you.'"
The History of Chris Rock's Jokes and Jada Pinkett Smith
Of course, the joke came from somewhere. The reference Rock made was to Pinkett Smith's shaved head - the main character in G.I Jane has a similarly shaved hairstyle. But for Pinkett Smith, it's not a choice. Here's a brief rundown of the history you should be aware of behind the joke Rock cracked on stage:
- Past jokes: Chris Rock has targeted Pinkett Smith in the past. Both Smiths boycotted the 2016 Oscars and Rock made a joke about how her boycotting the Oscars was like Rock himself boycotting Rihanna's underwear, somewhere he hadn't been invited.
- Black hair: Rock himself helmed a documentary on the power of a Black woman's hair in 2009. An Oprah.com review writes, "So Chris set out to do something he's never done before—a documentary. In Good Hair, Chris travels from beauty shops in Brooklyn to sacred Indian temples to get to the root of why African-American women place so much importance on their hair. What Chris discovered is a $9 billion industry that affects the daily activities, wallets, self-esteem—and even the sex lives—of black women. Because women spend so much time and money on their hair, Chris says men are forced to adopt a hands-off policy. 'You cannot touch a black woman's hair. You are conditioned not to even go there,' he says. 'When I was a dating guy, I dated women from different races. Anytime I was with an Asian or a Puerto Rican girl or a white girl, my hands would constantly be in their hair. Like my hands were thirsty.'" Black women often fight workplace and academic discrimination for wearing natural Black hairstyles. There has been a battle in recent years to dismantle some of the racist policies and procedures that punish Black women for their natural hair.
- Alopecia: The crux of the issue of course is that what Rock did was "punch down at someone with a disability," according to many. Pinkett Smith has long been open about her battle with an auto-immune disease called Alopecia, which causes a person to lose their hair - often in large patches. It's not uncommon for a person with Alopecia to struggle to grow any hair at all, or to shave their head to battle the uneven patches.
- The symbol of femininity: One other point that the internet is raging about is that Rock didn't just come for Pinkett Smith as an actor - not as a person, or even take a crack at the open marriage with Smith which has become fodder for much of Hollywood's humor. What Rock chose to mock is a symbol of what many consider to be a symbol of femininity. Right or wrong, a woman's hair is often tied to her status as a woman - and choosing the physical ailment which robs her of that symbol to mock in front of millions is a questionable choice at best.
Given the context of the history of tension between them and the fact that Rock should understand - better than anyone - what it means to mock a Black woman's hair, it's hard to imagine that his joke was anything other that intended to cause harm.
So Who was the Bad Guy?
Given the weight of the history between the three of them and the understanding Rock should have had that Pinkett Smith's hair was off limits, who does that leave as the bad guy? Was Smith completely justified in defending his wife - or was Rock just making a harmless, if tasteless, joke?
According to the internet, the way you answer may be character-defining. Across social media today, people are trading barbs. Celebrities are weighing in too, with CBS News reporting, "'Just saw the Will Smith slap. Anyone have a late night show I can borrow just for tomorrow?' comedian and former late-night host Conan O'Brien tweeted.
'And as far as *that incident* goes….. i am still processing. i have second hand embarrassment for all involved,' tweeted actress and model Jodie Turner Smith.
The couple's son, Jaden Smith tweeted 'And That's How We Do It,' although it is unclear if the tweet is directly referring to the slap.
Judd Apatow wrote in a since-deleted tweet that Smith 'could have killed (Rock). That's pure out of control rage and violence.' Many criticized the director for weighing in on the matter. "
Actress Jessenia Vice wrote on Instagram, "My heart goes out to Will as so many ppl are highlighting him laughing at Chris joke toward Jada. What do u do when ur celebrating ? When a comedian makes a joke of someone u love? When ur amongst ur peers? Let’s stop replaying Will laughing & applaud him standing up for his wife! Wether it was 30 seconds later or 3hrs later. He processed it & although I never console violence , he said what he said. “LEAVE MY WIFES NAME OUT YO MOUTH!” For those who don’t know Jada shaved her head bc of her health condition. If it’s uncomfortable for a man to bald, imagine what it’s like for a woman ? My heart goes out to Chris too bc he’s a friend of Wills and clearly he was telling a joke as a comedian. Again violence is never the way. Anyways @jadapinkettsmith my #Virgo goddess sister , keep shining bright. #willsmith #jadapinkettsmith."
So the question remains, who was the bad guy of last night? And the answer is complicated. Many are saying, "violence is not the answer." That "we are taught from childhood that hitting other people is an unacceptable way to channel our anger." And for an average Joe to "stroll up on an Oscars stage and strike Rock is unthinkable" - they'd be tackled by security and arrested immediately. So there's a valid conversation circling about privilege and that pesky double standard for those who are affluent and those who are not.
However, everyone has their breaking point. And it would appear Smith reached his. Is mocking someone's disability worse, or taking a swing? The internet can't seem to find a consensus except that everyone seems to agree that both were in the wrong to some degree. Rock has since declined to press charges on Smith, and the Academy has spoken out to acknowledge that they don't condone violence - but it remains to be seen how Rock and Smith will settle this between the two of them.