I’m an avid Academy Awards watcher. I’ve watched for years, and can’t remember missing one. I cheered when Halle Berry won for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball, the year after Denzel Washington won the award for Best Actor for Training Day, and have for years lamented how few Black actors, Latino actors, Asian actors, LGBTQ+ actors, disabled actors, etc. have won awards.
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So last night, I was set to be left hopeful as it was predicted that the night would bring a few wins for a few underrepresented creatives. Instead, an unhinged Will Smith—regardless of his reason—turned what could have been a thoughtful and inspiring moment into chaos and distraction by reacting with an outburst to something stupid that comedian Chris Rock said.
After a week of watching the Honorable Ketanji Brown Jackson take attacks from far lesser humans during her Supreme Court hearings and never once allowing her reason or dignity to be stolen from her or from the historic moment she was in, I was stunned that Smith so easily let his own moment (long-earned) be hijacked by ego and anger.
In case you missed it, the Academy Awards were going along as usual on Sunday, with no real upsets.
Hosts Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall were charming and funny, and CODA’s supporting actor Troy Kotsur, the first deaf man to win an Oscar for acting, gave a moving speech about inclusivity and thanked all the deaf theaters that had given him the opportunity to develop his craft.
A few more awards, a few more minutes.
Then just at the top of the last hour, Rock was announced as a presenter for the Best Documentary Film. I thought Rock would do his usual funny bit and was braced to cheer for Questlove’s amazing film Summer of Soul.
Then all hell broke loose.
Rock came out and within a minute he took a swipe at Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
“Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see you,” Rock said, referring to Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.
The problem with the insensitive “joke” is that Pinkett Smith has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes people to lose their hair. So after Smith heard the comment, he stormed onto the stage to allegedly protect his wife’s honor and slapped Rock in the face. He then stormed back to his seat and shouted at Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out your f***ing mouth.”
But here’s the thing: By all accounts, Smith was favored to win the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard, so he must have known he’d have an opportunity to give his big speech. And that would have been the moment to speak to Rock’s insensitivity. To talk about the importance, especially during these times, of respecting Black women.
Smith could have connected his wife’s diagnosis with anyone who struggles with a mental or physical difficulty and said that Rock’s comments at the expense of Pinkett Smith were wrong, inappropriate, and cheap.
Sadly, that’s not what Smith did. He allowed his ego and his emotion to take over, ultimately belittling the hard-fought wins of the night and his own years of accomplishments.
Smith went on minutes later to win the award for Best Actor, and in his speech he both explained his actions and apologized—though not to Rock.
He wept openly, maybe because he felt bad about allowing himself to be lost in anger, or maybe because he’d worked his ass off for decades to stand on that stage. But either way, it was a bad look for Smith and it won’t be soon forgotten. I’m sure someone will make a joke about it at next year’s Oscars.
Addressing the incident’s racial elements is complicated.
On the one hand, Rock and Smith are beyond race as they’re part of the immensely wealthy and entitled Hollywood elite.
On the other hand, they’re both Black men in America, and their struggle to achieve greatness came with barriers that white Americans simply don’t have. They’re judged and watched, and like Jackson, they must look beyond petty comments, battle harder to get where they want to go, and know that at any time the police and other white people in authority can take everything away from them.
That said, I hate that Black Americans are held to a higher standard. I hate that Jackson couldn’t say what she was undoubtedly thinking during her hearing: “I’m smarter and more qualified than any other nominee in history.” But we as Black Americans—particularly Black American women—are held to a higher standard. We are expected to sublimate our anger lest we be deemed “angry Black women” or “violent Black men” who must be put down in order to keep control in society.
I wish Smith had handled it better. I understand he was upset about Rock’s comments about his wife, but there were a million other ways that it could have gone that didn’t make everyone watching cringe. Because, let’s face it: If you’ve ever been with someone who can’t take a joke or doesn’t have self-control, it’s uncomfortable at best, frightening at worst, and embarrassing for everyone involved.
Lastly, I’m all for defending my family, but Pinkett Smith is her own person. Her eyeroll after Rock’s comments said it all, and it was her head he was talking about. I think she could have spoken to any number of the press about her feelings after hearing Rock’s joke. She is a celebrity in her own right.
One more thing: There’s a war going on. People are literally fighting for their lives. I think any refugee fleeing from some horrific reality would argue how unimportant Rock’s joke was at the end of the day. I mean, they all left the Dolby Theater in their limos and headed off to some fabulous party to gossip over drinks and overpriced food about witnessing a millionaire hit another millionaire because he talked about his millionaire wife. Let’s get real here.