He Who Gets Slapped

By Joel Bellman
Joel BellmanBy Joel Bellman

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He Who Gets Slapped
Before winning the Oscar for Best Actor in King Richard, Will Smith leapt from his front-row seat and smacked Oscar host Chris Rock, presumably for insulting his wife. It was not a gag.
Stand-up comics learn early on how to shut down a heckler. But even a veteran like Chris Rock could never have prepared for an offended Will Smith striding up on stage in the middle of his Oscar presentation, slapping him into the middle of next week, as Stephen Colbert cracked, and then striding off again to retake his seat as if nothing had happened. And if anyone had any lingering doubts that this might have been a bizarre but still scripted bit, Smith should have dispelled them by loudly dropping the f-bomb, twice, on network TV just in case he still hadn’t made his point. Not long after, he collected his best-actor Oscar with a rambling semi-apology to everyone but the guy he hit, and received a standing ovation. In the following days, Smith issued a more unreserved apology to Rock personally, resigned from the Academy, and after an emergency Academy board meeting, was banned from attending future Oscars ceremonies for ten years due to his “harmful behavior.” Recent reports have him entering some kind of high-level rehab for the stress. Arizona congressman Morris Udall once quipped during a lengthy hearing, “Everything has been said, but not everyone has said it.” So here’s my take on one of the most singular events in live TV history. At this point, the least interesting part of the conversation is what happens to Will Smith. He clearly needs to go away for a while and do some personal work, and we can only wish him well. But what’s really disturbing are some of the public reactions to so shocking an act. Media events of this magnitude are invariably Rorschach tests for the popular psyche, and what stands revealed here is deeply disturbing. The first problem was that so many people have become untethered from reality that they were denying the plain fact of what happened in front of their own eyes. Against all evidence, despite repeated viewings of the clips that saturated the media, they continued to insist it was all some kind of a gag. Another sad example of how years of non-stop lying, amplified by right-wing media, by the former president and his party—30,573 false or misleading claims further during his presidency documented by the Washington Post fact-checking team—has undermined the notion of objective truth. Too many people, even a few celebrities, defended Smith’s slap as a legitimate response to an offensive remark in protecting his wife’s honor or literally striking a blow in favor of disability rights (even though her alopecia is not disabling and is a fairly common skin condition that many of us, possibly even Rock himself, had no idea she even had.) Moreover, in recent years shaved heads have become a distinct fashion look among Black women, and she looked as glamorous as anyone else in the room. Some of the most disappointing reactions came from some quarters in the Black community, mainly women, who defended it on racial, cultural, and even self-defense grounds, calling Rock’s joke an example of “misogynoir,” an explicitly anti-Black-women kind of hate speech. Others have suggested that it’s racist almost by definition for White people to criticize or comment about Smith at all, because this is a Black thing that White people don’t understand. When I cited a column by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who said of Smith,“With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated stereotypes about the Black community,” one White friend dismissed it with,“Kareem is only read by White people who are fine with the racial status quo.” Some observers saw further evidence of the debased Hollywood celebrity culture, but maybe the black-tie audience was too stunned and confused to respond appropriately to such a monumentally awkward and unprecedented incident. Yet that doesn’t explain all the subsequent carefully crafted commentaries defending Smith and blaming Rock for somehow “asking for it.” Most corrosive of all is the haughty “oh, who cares” response from people airily posturing that they’ve got far more important things to think about, as though the debate is distracting them from curing cancer or negotiating an end to the Ukrainian war. We should all care that a Black performer got assaulted just for performing, and firmly reject the idea that because his assailant was also Black, he had special license to do it. It’s awful to pretend it doesn’t matter because it’s just “family business”—as too many White people have traditionally ignored crime and violence afflicting Black communities—or because they’re both rich, because they’re both actors, or because as a friend lectured me, “This was only violence lite.” The FBI homicide data for 2019, the most current year available, reveals that 88.6% of the single-victim/single-offender Black homicides were committed by other Blacks. When we feign indifference, or rationalize violence to avenge insults or settle disputes, we’re well on a road that may start with a slap at the Oscars, but ends up in shootouts on the streets of Sacramento and countless other cities across the country. And, I wouldn’t boast of “not caring” about any of that.
Joel Bellman

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April 15, 2022