Will Smith Isn't a Villain – He's Human

Getty / Myung Chun

The 2022 Oscars were all anyone could talk about Sunday night. From Ariana DeBose’s historic win to heartwarming red carpet reunions, the evening was meant to acknowledge Hollywood’s sheer brilliance, but it turned out to be an unforgettable night for all the wrong reasons.

Like most viewers, the heated altercation between Chris Rock and Will Smith threw me for a loop. The Academy’s edits in the US broadcast made the encounter look choppy until raw footage later appeared online. Following Rock’s tasteless joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, and her buzzcut (a result of her hair loss and alopecia), the “King Richard” star approached the presenter on the Oscars stage and slapped him in the face. He followed up the hit by telling Rock twice, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f*cking mouth.” Was it real? Was it staged? That didn’t matter to me. Because after my initial shock wore off, I already knew the horrific headlines that would haunt me all week, especially as a Black journalist.

Nothing good could come from any story that pits Smith’s actions against Rock’s words. One Black man getting violent with another Black man on the most high profile stage in Hollywood and on a global telecast? As expected, the conversation that ensued online – with no end in sight- swirled with rhetoric rooted in racism and respectability politics, all lacking nuance, understanding, and most of all, grace. It made me take a step back and analyse all the facts at hand. Rock has a history of making controversial jokes, so his insensitive remark didn’t come as a surprise. But for those of us who grew up on Smith, we knew there had to be more to the story than what we saw at the Oscars. You don’t go from being America’s sweetheart to randomly hitting someone in front of millions of viewers without just cause. The narrative is more complex than this isolated encounter, so what really happened between Smith and Rock?

Their awkward history dates back to 2016 when the comedian made fun of Smith’s wife during his opening monologue at the Oscars. Rock mentioned Pinkett Smith while speaking about the show’s lack of diversity in nominations (aka #OscarsSoWhite) and stars boycotting the Academy. “Jada says she’s not coming. Protesting. I’m like, ‘Ain’t she on a TV show?,'” he said. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!” The “Red Table Talk” cohost later responded to Rock’s comments while walking through LAX telling photographers, “Hey, look it comes with the territory, we gotta keep it moving. We got a lot of stuff we gotta handle, a lot of stuff going on in our world right now. We gotta keep it moving.”

“Where do we draw the line at jokes that go too far?”

Two years later, Rock poked at the Smiths again; this time he commented on Smith’s Instagram post where he wished his ex-wife Sheree Zampino a happy birthday. “Wow. You have a very understanding wife,” he wrote. Though it seems things never went further than that, it’s possible Smith’s reaction to Rock’s comment on Sunday came from a buildup of previous interactions. The Smiths have famously found their marriage constantly in headlines. Between strangers commenting on their personal business and comedians mocking their relationship, would it be far-fetched to believe the couple simply had enough of being the butt of everyone’s jokes?

Fame doesn’t take away human emotion. So where do we draw the line at jokes that go too far? Would there be an uproar over Rock’s comment and Smith’s slap had things not turned physical? Is demeaning a Black woman for her hair loss from an autoimmune disorder, in front of a mostly white audience and the world watching, not violent, too? Violence, by definition, isn’t limited to physical harm. Those condemning Smith’s actions should examine Rock’s, too. He’s the same person who made “Good Hair” – a documentary about Black women’s hair, inspired by his daughter – yet, unaware or not, made a Black woman’s hair and her medical condition a punchline. Pinkett endured just as much, if not more, pain as Rock in that fateful moment.

Others could argue that the Black elders in attendance, those who paved the way for Smith to be there, also felt a twinge of hurt following the escalated incident. Denzel Washington pulling the actor aside to comfort him made it clear just how much the encounter impacted him. It’s why many users online felt “embarrassed” that Smith didn’t exercise more decorum, as egregious as that notion is. There’s a certain expectation for Black people to “behave” in the company of others. And despite the non-Black celebrities who are hardly ever held to this same standard, the unspoken rule for us is to take the disrespect in public and address it in private – but Smith wasn’t having that at the Oscars. No, violence isn’t always the answer, but in the actor’s confrontation, he put his foot down – enough is enough.

Some may say Smith is at fault and even used the moment to feed his own ego – something the actor touched on in his 2021 memoir. But I’d argue that he was well within his right to take action considering the offense. It was impulsive, but seemed justified given his underlying history with Rock. At that moment, Smith found it necessary to protect his wife, regardless of his surroundings and who was in the room, because she’s the one who caught an unnecessary stray from Rock. Smith compared himself to his “King Richard” counterpart in his acceptance speech and called himself a “fierce defender of his family.” And he confirmed that, despite his high status, he can’t always be expected to “take abuse” and “let people talk crazy” about him.

“Something horrible did take place on that Oscars stage, but it’s not our job to dictate who’s the villain and the victim.”

Though Smith issued a formal apology to the Academy and his peers the day after the Oscars, his tearful speech revealed a flawed, complex human being. As jarring as it was to see the actor still be rewarded amid the chaos, it doesn’t mean he didn’t deserve his award. In this case, Smith’s personal feelings shouldn’t invalidate his esteemed accomplishments. His actions weren’t unprovoked. Every action has a reaction, and the onstage quarrel is a prime example of that adage. It’s unfortunate that his win will be forever associated with this memory, but the incident with Rock shouldn’t define him.

It’s clear that there’s still more to this story than we know. So it’d be wise for people to not be surface-level commentators fueling irrelevant fodder – it’s dangerous. Something horrible did take place on that Oscars stage, but it’s not our job to dictate who’s the villain and the victim. So before we start pointing the finger and saying what should and shouldn’t have happened, ask yourself – if Smith didn’t hit Rock in public, would his wife being disrespected even have been a conversation?

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