(NewsNation) — It was probably the most shocking moment in the history of the Academy Awards. One of the night’s celebrated stars, Will Smith, slapped comedian Chris Rock after he made a joke at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense.
The attack was so unexpected that many thought it was part of the show — a comedy routine masquerading as outrage to drum up drama. It was only when unedited clips from around the world set social media aflame that everyone realized it was not an act.
Over in seconds, the exchange will likely reverberate for years to come, setting off fierce debates on complex issues:
how far can you go to defend your spouse?
Smith’s actions Sunday night were met with mixed reactions. Some celebrated.
“When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife. That meant so much to me,” Tiffany Haddish told PEOPLE, “And that meant the world to me. And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”
Others say Smith crossed the line.
“I think two things can be true, you can go too far as a comedian and violence is never the answer,” entertainment journalist Josh McBride said on “Morning in America.”
the beef goes back half a decade
Unlike the “shot heard ‘round the world” that marked the beginning of a conflict, the slap heard round the world may mark the end of one. That’s because Rock has swiped at both Smith and his wife in the past.
In 2016, all 20 Oscar nominations in the acting categories went to white performers and the lack of diversity led some, including Pinkett Smith, to boycott the event. It also happened to be the year Chris Rock was hosting.
In his opening monologue, Rock poked fun at her protest, saying, “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
Rock also took aim at Smith: “Jada’s mad her man Will was not nominated for Concussion. I get it,” he said. “It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for Wild Wild West.” It’s a moment Will Smith didn’t forget and was apparently still mad about, according to People magazine.
When Smith took the stage Sunday night to accept his Oscar, he did not apologize to Rock. Instead, he directed his regret to the Academy and his fellow nominees.
do comedians have a new target on their backs?
It’s a scenario comedians try not to think about — an aggrieved audience member storms the stage to assault them for something they said. After all, there are social and legal distinctions between words and violence in the United States. Comedians operate in the world of words, boxers settle things in the ring. Words can hurt, sting and aggravate but they are not the same as assault.
That distinction was blurred Sunday night because of what didn’t occur as much as what did. Smith was not escorted out of the venue, nor asked to leave. In fact, just moments later, he walked on stage to accept one of the most prestigious awards of the night — best actor — and was met with applause.
It seemed as though Smith’s actions were being legitimized by the celebrities in attendance. Except, those aren’t the rules of the game. As comedian Kathy Griffin pointed out on Twitter, what happens to the next comedian who tells a joke that doesn’t land?
“Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” she wrote.
Comedian George Wallace said he would still tell “yo’ momma jokes,” suggesting that anyone who comes at him on stage can “try drivin’ home from the Laugh Factory with a mic stand wrapped around your head and what not.”
race and the oscars
Sunday night was supposed to be historic, for different reasons:
- Film producers Will Packer and Shayla Cowan became the first Black partners to produce the prestigious award ceremony
- Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of color to win an acting Oscar
- Troy Kotsur became the first deaf man to win an Academy Award
- Three women hosted the event: Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and Regina Hall
Given the controversial history of the Academy Awards, Sunday should have been noteworthy for its night of firsts. Yet, most will remember the night for a different reason.
“This moment will now forever be shadowed for Will Smith. We won’t remember Will Smith winning the Oscar this year, people will remember it as, ‘Oh that’s the year Will Smith open-handed slapped or punched Chris Rock,” entertainment journalist Josh McBride said on “Morning in America.”
talking (and joking) about health
Pinkett Smith has been vocal about her journey with alopecia since her 2018 diagnosis. Alopecia is an autoimmune disease, where a person’s immune system attacks hair follicles, causing their hair to fall out.
“It was terrifying when it first started,” she recalled during a May 2018 episode of her series, Red Table Talk. “I was in the shower one day and had just handfuls of hair in my hands and I was just, like, ‘Oh, my God, am I going bald?’”
Pinkett Smith has admitted that hair has been a big part of her identity and since shaving her head, she’s learned to embrace her “crown.”
“I really had to put it in a spiritual perspective of, like, the higher power takes so much from people. People are out here who have cancer, people who have sick children. I watch the higher power take things every day,” she said. “And, by golly, if the higher power wants to take your hair, that’s hair? When I looked at it from that perspective, it really did settle me.”
Pinkett Smith was seen Sunday night looking disapprovingly at Rock’s joke, though she has yet to comment after her husband slapped him on stage.
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, who been vocal about her alopecia journey, apparently posted and then deleted a tweet that read, “#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith,” Pressley’s tweet said. “Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”
what’s smith facing next?
After the assault on national television Sunday night, Rock declined to file a police report, but what would have happened if he had pressed charges?
“This is very clearly, from a legal perspective, a textbook battery,” criminal defense attorney Matt Fakhoury told “Morning In America” on Monday. “Slapping somebody is considered a violent act because it’s making physical contact with another individual.”
In rare cases, police can proceed with charges even without somebody signing a complaint but given the stature of the two people involved, don’t count on it.
Fakhoury also drew attention to a moment many people noticed, the few seconds where Smith appeared to laugh along with the joke before seeing his wife’s reaction and adjusting his posture.
From a legal perspective, those seconds are crucial because they gave Smith time to make a decision. The decision he chose elevated the aggression from a split second reaction to an attack with intent.
“He deliberately step-by-step formed an intention, he knew what he was going to do. This would be a very easy open-shut type of criminal case,” Fakhoury said.
While Smith may not face immediate criminal charges, he will be subject to scrutiny by his peers.
“The Academy condemns the actions of Mr. Smith at last night’s show,” the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wrote in a statement Monday. “We have officially started a formal review around the incident and will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our bylaws, standards of conduct and California law.”