The Oscars are over and, as I write this, the gilded after-parties have presumably started gliding into gear. But my mind—and maybe yours?—is still stuck at the moment toward the end of the show, when Will Smith stormed the stage and gave my favorite comedian, Chris Rock, a quick, curt, mind-blowing slap across the face. Rock had made a silly joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, comparing her buzzed head to Demi Moore’s in the twenty-five-year-old movie “G.I. Jane.” (Some of the absurdity of this episode, at least for me, came from the fact that the violence was already done by the time I could pull the dated reference out of the murk of my mind.) Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes and shook her head. At first, her husband seemed to just laugh. But, perhaps goaded by his wife’s annoyance—or maybe, like me, slow to recall the plot of a quasi-feminist military drama from the turn of the century—he got up, sauntered, with a strange, unpredictable swagger, up the short lane to the spot where Rock stood, and administered the blow.
Watching it, I first thought that the slap was fake, part of some daring, gonzo comedic bit, maybe playing on white expectations of hair-trigger Black violence. The emergent Black producer Will Packer was helming the show and, well, perhaps he’d decided, at Rock’s urging, to go big and get weird. But Rock, whose job was to present the award for Best Documentary, was clearly frazzled. Somehow he managed to flick off a line I’ll never forget—“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me!”—before Smith, back at his seat, clearly still full of adrenaline, started to shout, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” The producers at ABC first froze the screen, then tried to mute the worst of Smith’s cursing, but his lips were eminently readable.
Rock fumbled through his introduction of the category and the recitation of the nominees. His tie was slightly askew, and his eyes glittered a bit. The next few moments swooped forward in an ecstatic blur: Ahmir (Questlove) Thompson won the Best Documentary award, for his heartening film “Summer of Soul,” then, suddenly, the director-producer-actor Tyler Perry was onstage, followed closely by a lively gospel choir, to present the in-memoriam video montage. Packer was the producer, but this passage (cartoonish confrontation; Perry’s long, rubbery face; contextless gospel jubilance) felt like something out of one of Perry’s endlessly iterated “Madea” soap-films.
Maybe you remember the existence of a short-lived 2015 NBC drama called “The Slap.” I never watched it, but what I gathered from the trailer, which became a joke in my household, was this: a kid gets slapped at a back-yard party, and shit starts spinning out of control. Maybe somebody needs to kick up a reboot with Rock in place of the kid and Smith as the out-of-control adult, drunk on fame and eccentricity and, perhaps, on the ghost of proximity to his lifelong dream. Everybody in the room at the Oscars expected Smith to win the award for Best Actor, for his portrayal of Richard Williams—father of Venus and Serena—in “King Richard.” Videos started popping up on Twitter of Smith being comforted by Perry and Denzel Washington during commercial breaks. What was everybody supposed to do? Just move on?
Smith and Pinkett Smith were still in their seats when the cameras started rolling again, wearing plastic smiles, determined to put forward the best acting jobs either had pulled off in quite some time. The Internet did its most useful thing: churn up context. In 2016, when he hosted the Oscars, Rock had made fun of Pinkett Smith’s boycott of the production because of its lack of diversity: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.” Funny joke, I thought at the time and still think. Nothing inordinately personal, and much better than the “G.I. Jane” reference. Many commenters pointed out that Pinkett Smith wears her hair low because she suffers from alopecia.
When Smith won the award he’d come to collect, he put on yet another performance for the now totally mortified crowd. Venus and Serena, up in a box, looked as if they’d just finished watching “The Blair Witch Project” for the first time—what was this but some ambivalent mixture of verite and horror?—instead of enjoying the vicarious glory cast on their family by virtue of Smith’s win. Lupita Nyong’o, who was seated just behind the Smiths, seemed to still be recovering. Smith started with a ballsy improvisation. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said, making clear through his emphasis what kind of parallel he was making. He went on:
So, you understand, he only slapped Rock—he slapped Chris Rock!—because he’s such a big man, such a rushing, white-water river of protection for the women in his life. He kept on like that, self-pitying and spiritualizing. Washington, he said, had advised him during the commercial: “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the Devil comes for you.”
Yes, the Devil: Chris Rock. Or: Was the Devil, that notorious hater of standup comedy, the one who’d made him slap Rock? Or are worldwide renown and fantastic wealth and total impunity a kind of demon, turning former teen stars such as the guy who wrote “Parents Just Don’t Understand” into public cheap-shot artists? That analogy wasn’t as clear as the one making Smith, along with Williams, a mighty protector, but there wasn’t much time to clarify. You know how they rush those speeches along.
I found myself afraid for Smith, who seemed, as he spoke, somehow even more unbalanced than he’d looked squaring up against Rock. I sincerely hope this outburst isn’t a symptom of some much worse problem, but, Rock fan that I am, I’m always hopeful that our world is a comedy and that jokes will outlast tears and petty fights. In the end, I wished that—on grounds of equal time—Rock had been given the chance to deliver a speech, too.