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The Ugliest Moment in the History of the Oscars

Will Smith slaps Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood.ROBYN BECK/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

On Sunday night, broadcasted live on air, possibly one of the ugliest moments in the history of the Oscars went down. Will Smith straight-up walked up on stage and, without warning, slapped Chris Rock across the face.

While this is shocking, it would be amiss to exclude the other positive outcomes of the evening. For example, Ariana DeBose is now the first queer woman of color to win an Oscar for West Side Story. Or how CODA won the best picture. Encanto won Best Animated Feature. Dune won Best Visual Effects. And ironically enough, guess who won Best Actor? That’s right, Will Smith.

Chris Rock had made a joke about Will Smiths’ wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2 – can’t wait to see it.” This was a reference to Demi Moores’s character in G.I. Jane, released in 1997, who strutted a buzzed hairstyle. The operative notch in this joke is that Jada Pinkett Smith also has a buzzed hairstyle because of her alopecia, a medical condition that leads to hair loss.

Several sources report that Chris Rock did not know Jada had alopecia. He could have just been poking fun at her choice of hairstyle, not necessarily targeting her medical condition in front of a mass audience. “He doesn’t have a mean bone in his body.” NewYorkPost posted on Instagram.

Jada rolled her eyes, and Will appeared to laugh at the joke. They were both laughing along until the moment came next that surprised everyone. Will Smith walked up on stage and slapped Chris Rock with considerable effort. He turned around, and honestly, the look on his face right after Will slapped him was the same look in his films that he wears: contrite, slightly ornery, and sure of himself.

Will Smith is the only one who could assault Chris Rock on national television, get away with it with no serious consequences, and receive a standing ovation after receiving his Best Actor award. What if the Oscars had chosen a woman to host the evening’s show, and Will Smith slapped a woman? Or a trans? Or what if the host for the evening was a white man and Will slapped him? The conversation would be entirely different. Has Will Smith ever been at odds with Chris Rock before? What is Will going through to lose such constraint?

The only story here is that Will can’t handle a joke. What’s worse is the precedent this has set for the entertainment industry. Wills’s conduct has set the stage for physical assault to be an acceptable or least tolerable response against performers in the industry. Will Smith will be having drinks on Friday night, but it sure won’t be with the comedians.

I think Chris Rock reacted just fine to the situation. “Will Smith just slapped the (expletive) out of me.” And then the audience laughed. Will Smith sat back down and said twice, louder the second time, to rage, “Get my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth.”

Chris responded with a solemn tone, “I’m going to. Ok?” And then there was this crippling, unspoken nervousness shifting about the room as a confused Chris Rock fumbled for his following words.

“That was the greatest night in the history of television.” He exhaled deeply twice, adjusting himself and processing what had just happened. The audience laughed again, probably more out of relief than wit.

Despite all that happened, actresses/ actors/ directors alike were recognized for their accomplishments nonetheless, and twenty-three awards went out; besides, what would be a golden night at the Oscars without a little crazy or a little comedy?

Alas – one question remains unanswered. When is G.I. Jane 2 coming out?

Editor’s note.

What Will Smith displayed that night was nothing more than an unadulterated lack of restraint. I understand that Chris Rock’s joke could be viewed as insensitive, but that is no justification for hitting another man in front of millions of people at the most televised awards ceremony. If Will and his wife took offense, then the proper response is to talk to Chris after the ceremony in a rational manner. I respect both Will Smith and Chris Rock because they are talented in their own right, but on that night, Rock showed he was the bigger person.

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