It seemed, at first, like a bit. Chris Rock made a bad joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head by referencing G.I. Jane. Then her husband Will Smith, the favorite to win the Best Actor Oscar, took the stage and struck Rock. Watching at home, it was hard to tell what happened, but the long stretch of bleeped-out silence that followed made it clear that it wasn’t a bit. Rock had, in Will Smith’s view, crossed a line. Smith responded with violence. After Smith returned to his seat, Rock struggled to regain his composure before carrying on announcing the nominees and winners of the Best Documentary Feature award. This was, by any definition, the sort of moment for which the phrase “What the fuck?” was invented.
The fundamental maxim of show business is “the show must go on.” And it did. Rock announced the winner. Planned bits and subsequent awards followed. But the 94th Academy Awards can easily be divided into two halves: before the Rock/Smith incident and after. Even via television you could feel tension mounting as the evening rolled on to what felt like Smith’s long-predicted win for Best Actor, after years of near-misses for stellar work. Following an awkward reunion of Pulp Fiction stars Uma Thurman, Samuel L. Jackson, and John Travolta celebrating, for never-explained reasons, the film’s 28th anniversary, the trio joyfully announced Will Smith’s name in unison. Will Smith then kissed Jada Pinkett Smith and took the stage to hugs, applause, and a standing ovation. Once again: WTF?
There is some context to consider. Jada Pinkett Smith has spoken publicly about her struggles with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss, since 2018. Furthermore, the Smiths, like all celebrities of their stature, live under a microscope and their marriage has been the subject of much discussion, particularly after interviews in which they talked about “entanglements” and other unconventional arrangements. Co-host Regina Hall even made a joke about it earlier in the evening that, in the midst of a wretched bit about administering Covid tests to sexy men, landed almost as poorly as Rock’s. For all the upsides of being part of a celebrity power couple with thriving careers and unimaginable wealth, it also probably sucks.
But the swiftness with which the Oscars — and those in attendance doing the applauding and hugging — rushed to paper over, even justify, this moment of violence? That sucked too. A tearful Smith delivered a bizarre speech that opened with an indirect reference to the assault by praising Richard Williams, the character he played in King Richard, as “a fierce defender of his family.” Smith roped co-stars Aunjanue Ellis, Saniyya Sidney, Demi Singleton into his defense by saying he “got to protect” them and suggested he was “overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to be and do in this world” and that he was being called on to “be a river to my people.” (That line comes from Lawrence of Arabia. It’s spoken by Anthony Quinn in the role of Auda Abu Tayi shortly after he describes all the enemies he’s slain.) Then, after apologizing to the Academy and his fellow nominees (but notably, not Rock), he closed with a joke about hoping the Academy would invite him back. More applause. More hugs. Another standing ovation.
But what about the rest of the Oscars? They now feel a bit like that old joke, “Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the play?”