Let’s break this whole thing down into four parts.
1. The Slap
I don’t have a ton to say about the act itself. It was definitely unpleasant and I’m sure the people in the room didn’t like it. I’m sure Chris Rock didn’t like it. Frankly, given his own reaction afterwards, I don’t think Will Smith liked it either. I didn’t like it, mostly because it made me sad. Chris Rock will be fine, but I feel sad because I knew immediately that the Takes were going to start, and ho boy did the mask come off real quick for the Hollywood establishment, and I don’t just mean that they had a large, unmasked crowd in the Dolby.
My verdict on the act will come at the end of all this. It was sad, but not for the reasons you probably think.
2. Bad Takes
I thought I’d seen “bad takes” before, but this was something else. Please go look up Judd Apatow, who apparently wasn’t even watching the show, asserting that this open-hand slap could have killed Chris Rock – does he think Will Smith is actually Hancock? – or Mia Farrow, who should know about violent folks in Hollywood, calling this the “ugliest moment” in the history of the show.
If people tried to point out the nuances in the conversation, they were forced to denounce violence, the way we (you know who “we” is) were forced to condemn looting or rioting or anything that upsets the natural order of things. Let’s be clear, though – Hollywood doesn’t give a single damn about violence, even if they’ve made up some rules after they had to admit who Harvey and everyone else truly was, and how long they’d enabled them.
#MeToo was – and remains – a lot of things, but beyond simply being a pattern of predation and abuse, it is a workplace/industry problem. A societal one, too, but my point is, the victims were not just unsafe, but unsafe as they attempted to build and/or further their careers, while the people who preyed on them were given awards and hosannas. You might be asking what this has to do with Will and Chris, and I’ll get back to that, but the point is, let Hollywood shut all the way up given who they’ve deified over the many decades. They love violence. We just aren’t supposed to talk about what, say, William Hurt did.
I think that the slap was clearly a bad moment for Will, and that he ought to have approached him backstage. Hollywood doesn’t actually care that he did it, though – they care that he destabilized their flagging enterprise. They care that he brought disorder and shattered their sense of decorum during a broadcast that somehow managed to show a stunning lack of affection for a pretty solid crop of movies. Hollywood is prouder of its museum than the people who make its art, and they’re all on the fainting couch because their pride is wounded.
Let me demonstrate with a brief aside into the actual awards.
3. Best Director
This is the full list of the last ten winners of Best Director:
Jane Campion, Chloe Zhao, Bong Joon-Ho, Alfonso Cuarón, Guillermo Del Toro, Damien Chazelle, Alejandro Iñárritu (x2), Alfonso Cuarón, and Ang Lee.
Notice anything? Still no Black people, but the only white guy there is Chazelle, and, given he was only in his 30s, he was still a relative anomaly. Before Lee won in 2013 (for the second time), you only had Lee’s first win (in 2006) and Kathryn Bigelow to break up the unending streak of white men, over and over and over again.
Does this mean that Hollywood has turned a new leaf? Of course not, but the voting body of the academy is clearly shifting somewhat. This will occasionally lead to a spiteful tantrum like Green Book winning Best Picture – though I’m not sure it’s actually a worse movie than Bohemian Rhapsody – but overall, they’re very slowly opening themselves up to different voices and films (and languages). I focus on Director both because the ten-year list is pretty compelling and also because those are the “authors” of these visions much of the time. And so, as the voters might be changing who they select each year, the establishment watches and is somewhat unsettled. They, you see, had a nice little show that was very popular, where the best director is always a white guy, and Billy Crystal can do blackface in the bygone era of (checks notes) 2012 and it’s all just fun and games, and now it’s changing. (Coincidentally, that blackface year was the year that the white guy Best Director brigade lost its stranglehold.)
So this is the crux of my argument, then. The reaction to all this isn’t really about Will. They want their industry back the way it was – even if it hasn’t exactly become equitable – and they know it’s pretty much never going to happen, so the tension and vitriol and desperation is evident. They demand we (and you know who “we” is) condemn this alongside them, and, though I am not saying it was a good idea, I’m not going to do that. Not unless they’re ready to truly condemn violence in all its forms.
I’m not just talking about all the predators they celebrate. I’m talking about stuff like Green Book. I’m talking about Crash. I’m talking about Driving Miss Daisy winning when Do the Right Thing was sitting right there. You want to call that a stretch, saying that awards don’t matter? Fine. But if awards and the show they produce didn’t matter, they wouldn’t be so angry about all of this. Chris Rock will be fine, but will Judd Apatow’s feelings ever recover?
Like a lot of people, I’ve enjoyed Will Smith’s work for three decades now, going back to when I was four or five. But Will Smith made a lot of very conscious choices to appeal to the broadest – that is, whitest – audiences around. He was the one rapper my parents liked because he didn’t curse, and he sure didn’t ever do anything sexual on screen. Even though his hits kind of dried up in recent years – we don’t talk about Suicide Squad – once King Richard was announced, “That’s Will’s Oscar” became a talking point and that’s exactly what happened.
He’s got a lot of money and, even if there are repercussions for this, he’ll probably end up okay, even with a “tarnished reputation,” in which case he’ll clearly deserved to be shunned like Mel Gibson… isn’t. I can’t help but think about what it must be like to have to stay in that lane for so long, though.
I’m a Black guy who grew up in a lot of white spaces over the years. For the longest time, I thought, subconsciously I guess, that being The Only in these spaces was its own statement, yet, as I learned throughout the discourse on various racial justice protests from Trayvon to Ferguson to Floyd, I was still just a lot of peoples’ Black friend, and, worse, I was their “safe” Black friend, the one they could go to just work through their nonsense and expect me to smile. I got fed up with this a few years ago and basically tossed a lot of my former friends away – if you read this and haven’t heard from me since 2020, congrats, you know why now – and while I didn’t slap anyone, I get the pressure. There are a lot of calls for “Black mental health” now, which is good, but where are those calls when there isn’t a public catastrophe? Only when we step out of line do they want us to be healthy.
I would be remiss if I didn’t add that, not being a woman, I can’t speak for that aspect of the conversation and don’t claim to, but I can speak from my own perspective, and this is where I have settled, for now. The fact is, the money doesn’t take the pressure away to fit inside the box of “acceptable Blackness,” and if I am putting myself in his shoes, where a fellow community member is making fun of my wife’s illness in front of the broader industry, well, to paraphrase a misogynistic OJ/Nicole joke once made by (checks notes) Chris Rock, “I’m not saying he should have slapped him… but I understand.”