WOnly fifth Black person to have won an Oscar for Best Actor is ill Smith. But on the night of his historic win, the biggest story has become his reaction to Chris Rock’s joke about his wife Jada Pinkett Smith. It was obvious that it was just a joke in the patter. G.I. Jane 2, a reference to Demi Moore’s 1997 movie in which her head was shaved for most of the movie as her character attempts to finish a military training program. It’s not a particularly clever or interesting joke, but it seemed like any other barb tossed off from the stage (in fact, a source later told Variety it wasn’t in the script). However, it was a harsh thing to say about someone with alopecia who had been publicly struggling for many years. Do you think Smith is right to hit Rock? No. But some of the hyperbolic reaction to what transpired say less about Smith’s actions and more about people’s inability to consider the situation with any nuance.
Rock has targeted some of his most biting jokes at the Smiths in the past, the most notable being the 2016 Oscars when he mocked Pinkett Smith’s decision to boycott the Oscars, suggesting that she wouldn’t have been invited anyway. The couple seemed to ignore it at the time. “Hey, look it comes with the territory, we gotta keep it moving,” Pinkett Smith said. What changed then? Did it have to do with the unspoken effects of her disease? It could have been the stressful events of the past few years. The exact cause of this time turning into a physical confrontation may not be known. This doesn’t mean Smith was right. This is a sign that he is human. People make mistakes.
As a society we often pick and choose which violence is acceptable and forget that what we might do is not necessarily what someone who doesn’t share our history will do. People get fed up, they run out of patience, they see a moment of deep hurt on a loved one’s face, and they react. Celebrities are at their core people who can be as sensitive to emotions as any other person. Will Smith shouldn’t have insulted Chris Rock. But he also shouldn’t have had to watch his wife’s illness be used to make her the butt of an ableist joke.
Hollywood’s history with interpersonal violence is complex because Hollywood is nothing if not forgiving of white men’s violence, especially against women, as evidenced by the long careers of Roman Polanski and Harvey Weinstein. Mel Gibson’s periodic returns to the screen—including a 2016 nomination for Best Director—after facing allegations of domestic violence as well as spewing racist and antisemitic attacks on costars and others signals a willingness of many in Hollywood to look the other way. Also, the Oscars are not immune from public conflict. John Wayne reportedly had to be restrained by six men when Sacheen Littlefeather used her time at the podium to refuse Marlon Brando’s Godfather He won on her behalf. Her acting career was effectively ended when she later claimed she had been blacklisted by the studios. Yet the conflict at this year’s Oscars seems to have many who have been, let’s just say, morally flexible about violence ready to take a stand against it now.
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Consider the quick take of Judd Apatow, who claimed, “He could have killed him. That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades. They have been around for decades in comedy and Hollywood. He lost his mind.” This is a bizarre reaction given the fact that Apatow worked for years with actor James Franco who actress Busy Philipps claims grabbed her and threw her to the ground during on the set of Geeks and Freaks. Apatow removed his tweets about the subject after users pointed out that.
Some expressed concerns about Pinkett Smith’s treatment, while others were more concerned about Rock’s treatment of Smith. An ex-wife Access Hollywood host Erin O’Sullivan even compared Smith’s reaction to that of a domestic abuser. Yet there’s no evidence that Smith has ever been accused of being physically abusive to a partner, and he has spoken at length about how much guilt he still feels about not being able to save his mother from being abused when he was 9. It’s likely that history has a significant impact on what transpired at the Oscars.
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Writer Sara J. Benincasa pointed out in a thread immediately after the incident, “As a Sicilian from a family with few boundaries I am unqualified to be shocked by a man decking somebody who said something about his wife, I will leave that to people whose parents went to therapy early and often.” That’s also my personal reaction as someone watching from the outside who comes from a community where when words don’t work, sometimes hands do. Rock and Smith are from similar communities, and as evidenced by Rock’s decision not to press any charges, they will likely handle the rest of their interpersonal conflict in private. We don’t know the feelings of Pinkett Smith, but it seems that they are true to their pledge to support each other in whatever circumstances. It was a shocking incident in the moment, but I also don’t think outright condemnation of Smith is the answer. Sometimes, empathy is more important than our outrage.
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