To catch the unaware up to speed, Chris Rock took to the Oscars stage to present the Academy Award for Best Documentary. However, being the seasoned comedian that he is, Rock threw in a couple of quips, certainly with the encouragement of the producers, before moving on to the presentation. Among those quips was a punch line at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith, sitting front and center with husband Will. “Jada, love you, G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” As Jada has recently shaved her head in response to an alopecia diagnosis and subsequent hair loss (reportedly unbeknownst to Rock), she was not amused and rolled her eyes. Will Smith, sensing her discomfort, then rose, marched toward Rock, and smacked him across the face before returning to his seat and screaming, “Keep my wife’s name out your f— mouth!”
Though it may not seem so on the surface, there is nuance to this exchange. Chris Rock poked fun at both Will and Jada when he hosted the Oscars several years ago. Will and Jada have been transparent about the ongoings of their marriage, making them the butt of many jokes online and even amongst colleagues. Lastly, Will himself has admitted to continuously coping with the feelings of inadequacy he developed as a child from not being able to defend his mother from abuse.
Another topic to provide context to the incident is how award shows for entertainers are often produced and the resulting tension. Frequently, the committee chooses someone with a comedic background, if not a standup comic themselves, to host. The objective of this booking is to have a recognizable jester poke fun at the regal atmosphere that the committee generates. Having exceedingly rich people gather in fancy garb to exchange pleasantries and take turns congratulating themselves will draw a larger TV audience if someone is there to poke fun at them (you may have heard about the exploits of one Ricky Gervais, for instance). There is an unspoken divide here, as many actors (whether they say it or not) do not take kindly to being mocked. Regardless of their feelings on roast comedy, they want nothing to do with being the butt of any gags on their special night.
Beyond all these details exists an even larger talking point, which is the normalized ostracizing of Black women’s hairstyles. In both comedy and society at large, it has become so commonplace to denigrate how Black women dress, speak, respond to situations, and wear their hair that many people do not even recognize these disparaging remarks when they hear them. Thus, Jada’s decision to shave her head was measured and well thought out, knowing what the aftermath would likely be. Chris Rock, being the critical thinker that he is, still chose to take a jab at her.
Contrary to popular belief, few people just snap over one comment. The source of the rage and frustration dates back much further in time for most instances. In this case, Will and Jada are a famous couple whose transparency about their marriage and daily lives comes at a time when the most possible people have access to them. In the 80s, 90s or even early 2000s, Chris Rock’s quip may have been a little easier to brush off. Unfortunately, Jada has likely caught so much flack leading up to this awards show from anonymous people that she has never and will never meet. Though it may seem trivial, these insults cut much deeper than we realize to the point that even loving friends and colleagues ribbing you becomes angering and tiresome. What we saw on Jada’s face was not just pain, but fatigue.
During much of its existence, the Oscars has been a politically contested space. Presenters and awardees often use their time on stage to make statements on a broad range of social issues like the environment, geopolitics, human rights, Guantanamo Bay, LGBTQ rights, women’s issues, and race. And nearly since its inception, it has been wrought with controversy, some more well-known than others.
In 2019, the Academy’s announcement that awards for Cinematography, Live Action Short, Film Editing, and Makeup and Hairstyling would be presented during commercial breaks created significant social media backlash. While it reversed this decision due to social pressure, the organization received quite the lashing for the absence of women nominees in the Best Director category that same year. Also in that year, the show went without a single host when Kevin Hart resigned after significant criticism for what were labeled as “homophobic jokes” he made in the nascent stages of his career.
Indeed, some issues around the Oscars have been quite repugnant. Woody Allen’s award nominations, after news broke about his relationship with his adult stepdaughter in the late 1970s is one example. And Roman Polanski’s nominations after he pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor before fleeing the U.S. to avoid prosecution is probably the most egregious. The industry’s punishment was to expel Polanski from the Academy for life. Like Allen, his work, though, would continue to be recognized, celebrated, and awarded for years to come.
Undoubtedly, there is a tension between where the celebration of cultural accomplishments ends and accountability for moral failings and legal troubles begin. Blending the two means canceling people wholesale. In the case of Polanski, I think this is warranted; otherwise, I am simply not down for that. Nonetheless, this seems to be the abyss where Will Smith is headed, given news of his resignation from the Academy and rumblings of various movie deal cancellations.
It’s going to be a while before we know the full impact of Smith’s actions at the Oscars on Sunday. Admittedly, on the one hand, I felt some sense of validation as a Black woman – seeing a Black man stand strong for his Black wife. On the other, I felt ashamed and embarrassed even though I personally had no part in it. My feelings stem from the fact that what one Black person does typically gets transferred onto the collective. So, what Smith did affects anyone who looks like me and lives here in the U.S. Whether it was due to pent-up anger from social media comments, or the singular joke made by Chris Rock, Smith’s physical assault of Rock was unwarranted – particularly in plain view. There is simply too much at stake for Black and Brown people still working to gain entry into this space. At a time when we were all but absent at the Oscars, awardees of color and some White presenters showed that they were acutely aware of what was at stake and comported themselves in a manner that recognized this.
A proverbial elephant in the room existed at the show in 1939, when Hattie McDaniel was presented with the Best Supporting Actress award. As Fay Bainter, who won the previous year’s award in the same category, makes her presentation speech, the camera pans the audience and homes in on several expectant, White nominees, but never on McDaniel. Bainter stated in part during her presentation, “To me [the award] seems more than just a plaque of gold, it opens the doors of this room, moves back the walls, and enables us to embrace the whole of America.” The White women in the audience seem a bit perplexed. When announced by Bainter as the winner, McDaniel walks to the stage with pride, shoulders back, and gives a brief, pointed speech that concludes “I sincerely hope that I may always be a credit to my race. …”
In 1964, Sidney Poitier won the Oscar for Best Actor, where he simply thanked colleagues and the Academy but mentions nothing about race, despite being only the second Black performer to win the award in the Academy’s then 36-year history. Poitier is keenly sensitive to the significance of the win, however, as can be heard in his speech after receiving the Academy’s Honorary Award at the 2002 Oscars. In it, he speaks about the absence of customs for him to follow upon his arrival in Hollywood and how he benefited from a handful of visionaries who made “courageous, unselfish choices.” “Each,” he adds, “with a strong sense of citizenship responsibility to the time in which they lived. …”
Eight years later, Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous activist, acknowledged an award on Marlon Brando’s behalf. Dressed in traditional Indigenous garb, Littlefeather rejected Brando’s Best Actor Oscar because of the persistent, dehumanizing depictions and treatment of Indigenous people in Hollywood film. According to the report, John Wayne was offended by the statement and had to be restrained by several men to keep him from going onto the stage and removing Littlefeather during her 60-second, audience-jeered speech. This despite her concluding that “I beg at this time that I have not intruded upon this evening and that we will in the future, our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.” Years later, in an interview with The Guardian, Littlefeather said, “I didn’t use my fist [she clenches her fist]. I didn’t use swear words. I didn’t raise my voice. But I prayed that my ancestors would help me. ... I went up there with the grace and the beauty and the courage and the humility of my people.”
Smith showed no such grace. On the contrary, his blatant assault of Rock likely embarrassed every Black and Brown person who has been striving to get on a stage for decades. His actions marred the event and detracted from the celebrations of the nominees and their work. Coincidentally, Questlove won his first Oscar that night. His Best Documentary win was the first award announced immediately after the incident, when he and his team had to pretend as if nothing had just happened. It is not unusual for Black folks to have to suppress openly acknowledging what is obvious.
For decades, people of color have fought to get their stories told on screen and to loosen their identities from unflattering depictions since the advent of film at the beginning of the 20th century. Arguably, significant gains have been made. But as recent as 2016, the absence of acting nominations for Blacks and Hispanics led to the cultivation and trending of #OscarsSoWhite, indicating we are not there yet. With much work to do still, Smith commits an act on an iconic award show streamed across the globe that reinforces and perpetuates the very associations Black and Brown people have been and are still tirelessly working to disrupt. It is too soon to know if and how much of a setback this will be. What we do know is that Smith’s actions at the Oscars are regrettable and will be difficult to detach him– and ourselves from– for years to come.