How Will Smith’s Oscars slap of Chris Rock harms his legacy

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In 2002, Halle Berry made history at the Oscars, becoming the first Black woman to win lead actress, for “Monster’s Ball” — an achievement yet to be duplicated. It was the following year’s Oscars, though, that jumped to mind Sunday during what’s already being called “the slap heard around the world”: Lead actor winner Adrien Brody bounded onstage, grabbed Berry — who was presenting the award — and bent her backward, delivering a deep smooch to the stunned actress. The moment bothered many people, including Berry; many argued that Brody had disrespected Berry, if not assaulted her. It was a troubling follow-up to Berry’s milestone.

This year’s Academy Awards should have been a victorious night for Black artists. There was so much to celebrate: two Black women among the trio of cohosts, a Black producer, numerous Black presenters, a standout opener from Beyoncé. And a key player throughout the season was “King Richard,” a film paying tribute to the unlikely genius of Richard Williams as he helped transform his young daughters Venus and Serena into tennis superstars.

Instead of celebration, though, the star-studded audience at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and viewers around the world were left to gasp in shock and horror: One of Hollywood’s top entertainers had attacked another top entertainer onstage at the Oscars during the live telecast.

The sequence of events that led Will Smith to slap Chris Rock and send the Oscars into chaos is by now well-known: After Rock made a cruel joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia, Smith leaped up, approached Rock, smacked him across the face before returning to his seat, saying: “Keep my wife’s name out your f— mouth!”

A man in a tuxedo stands at a microphone during the Oscars ceremony.

Chris Rock onstage at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday.

(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The aftermath may have been even more surreal: Minutes later, the glitzy Hollywood crowd that watched the assault cheered the attacker as he accepted the Oscar for lead actor for “King Richard.” Audience members awarded him with rapturous applause as he delivered a tearful, awkward speech about “love” in which he apologized to the motion picture academy and his fellow nominees — but notably omitted an apology to Rock.

“The Academy does not condone violence of any form,” the Oscars’ governing body responded later, in a tepid statement on Twitter. The slap across the face did not even get a slap on the wrist. (On Monday, the organization added a more forceful statement: “The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show. We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law.”)

If the 94th Academy Awards marked a personal triumph for Smith, his journey to honor Richard, Venus and Serena Williams ultimately ended in dishonor: for Smith himself, for the Williams family (members of which looked visibly uncomfortable after the night jumped the rails) and for the Black creative community the actor has come to represent.

After all, Smith delivered a gift-wrapped present to conservatives dismissive of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasingly frustrated by the battle against systemic racism, from voting rights to critical race theory. It was easy to imagine Tucker Carlson watching the awards in his pajamas, leaping up and pointing to the screen: “Look! White people aren’t hurting Black folks. It’s really Black-on-Black crime. Those people are beating up on each other.”

Smith’s heroic stature inside and outside Black culture, and his carefully constructed persona as the patriarch of a celebrity family, only intensifies the fallout. And his actions have now placed his reputation in jeopardy.

A man reacts to an attack onstage by another man during an awards show.

Chris Rock, left, reacts to Will Smith during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood on Sunday.

(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

That is true whether you take Rock at his word — that he was making a “G.I. Jane” joke — or believe he crossed the line by coming for Pinkett Smith over a medical condition. You don’t need to justify Rock’s rhetoric to be mortified by Smith’s disproportionate response. Nor do you need to demand condemnation from the NAACP, investigation by the LAPD or expulsion from the academy to recognize the utter inappropriateness of a movie star assaulting an award presenter on national television.

Smith entered the Dolby Theatre as the presumptive winner of the lead actor Oscar. He was almost assured to have an opportunity during his acceptance speech to call out the comedian in a way that would have solidified his triumph while paying homage to his wife’s courage. Instead, he resorted to violence, expressed little remorse and danced the rest of the night away at the Vanity Fair afterparty. (If a white Oscar winner had assaulted a Black celebrity during the telecast, one suspects the audience would already be demanding they return the award.)

A man and a woman share a happy moment at the Oscars.

Will Smith shares a moment with wife Jada Pinkett-Smith after he was announced as the winner of the lead actor Oscar for “King Richard” on Sunday.

(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

More than the “Moonlight” / “La La Land” mix-up of 2017, the assault will further stain the Oscars and perhaps even accelerate their deteriorating importance in the pop culture firmament. When people look back on the 94th Academy Awards — already seemingly embarrassed by the nominated movies — they will likely forget which film won best picture (“CODA”), who won lead actress (Jessica Chastain) and director (Jane Campion), which winners (Troy Kotsur, Ariana DeBose) made history. But they are very likely to remember Smith and “the slap.” That one impulsive act overshadowed all of the evening’s positive moments.

The incident also marks a new, dark chapter in Smith’s stellar career, one that had reached fresh heights heading into Sunday: In “King Richard,” he gave a magnificent performance in a film he also produced. He published a bestselling memoir last fall. And he was a key force behind transforming the comedic launchpad of his acting career, “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air,” into a critically acclaimed dramatic series, “Bel-Air.”

So it’s particularly unsettling that it was Smith’s rage that upended the Oscars. Ever since his beginnings as a rapper and the star of a network comedy, Smith has managed to overcome the obstacles — the racism — that face Black actors, and his acting in “Ali,” “The Pursuit of Happyness,” “King Richard” and other projects has demonstrated time and again that he is more than just a pretty face.

Despite what ever is burbling beneath the surface of Smith’s response, his actions proved an embarrassment to all involved: Smith, his family, the academy, the audience that cheered him, even the presenters who followed him and tried, awkwardly, to downplay the incident. (For his part, Rock swiftly recovered and moved on, maintaining his composure instead of engaging with Smith’s continued shouts from the audience.)

“Will Smith said it all,” murmured Anthony Hopkins in one of the most inexplicable comments of the evening as he presented the lead actress award. “Let’s have peace and love and quiet.” Sean “Diddy” Combs — no stranger to beef himself — stepped onstage after the slap and quipped, “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve this like family at the Gold Party.”

A man comforts another man during an awards show.

Bradley Cooper, left, comforts Will Smith during a commercial break at the Oscars on Sunday.

(Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

That embarrassment can’t help but inflect the broader community of Black Hollywood and Smith’s legions of Black fans, even if it’s limited to the secondhand variety. Rather than a tribute to one of the industry’s brightest and most enduring stars, Sunday’s Academy Awards became one of Smith’s, and the ceremony’s, low points — and turned a night that should have been full of pride into one that can be described only as “infamous.”

In ending his acceptance speech, Smith sheepishly said he hoped the academy “invites me back.” Under normal circumstances, it would be a certainty: The statuette he held places him squarely in the hall of Oscar royalty. Now, though, that’s an open question. If the academy wants to establish a hall of shame, however, Smith could be one of its first inductees.

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