April 8, 2022

Media

Will Smith’s Oscars slap and the takes it spawned

By Martin McKenzie-Murray
Image of Will Smith hitting presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting an award at the Oscars, March 27, 2022. Image © Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

Will Smith hits presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting an award at the Oscars, March 27, 2022. Image © Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

If there was anything more bizarre than Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars, it was the plethora of absurd hot takes that followed

If Chris Rock’s joke inspired the worst in Will Smith, the slap itself inspired the worst in some of the vendors of our performative bazaar of hot takes – formerly known as the marketplace of ideas.  

Goodbye comedy

“I think as a society we’ve outgrown the need for comedians. Everyone and their grandmother is funny. I’ve gotten more laughs off of Twitter than watching a set by a comedian.” —Vanessa Ohaha, Twitter

In Twitter’s busy salon, here was a fashion journalist arguing that professional comedy was now redundant – because, you know, everyone is funny these days. No offence to my friends, but I wasn’t aware of this extraordinary development. Am I missing out?

I’ll grant Vanessa the benefit of doubt here, and assume that she does, in fact, occupy a social world that is uniquely crammed with hilarious people – a snow-globe perpetually filled with enlivening wit and general hilarity.

But in my world that’s not true. I know some funny and charming people. But those that can split your sides? All of the time? Come on. In fact, even professional funny people I know aren’t always, you know, funny.

But I’m not really getting to it here, am I? I’ve been too indirect. So, Vanessa:

You’ve heard some good jokes from your grandma – who I’m sure is great – and you’ve maybe seen a pretty dank meme or two on Twitter. But we’re all gonna fucking die, Vanessa, all of us, and so please let those gifted few write jokes, so this weirdness of being alive seems a little less weird – or at least a little more companionable. For as long as we suffer, we will need comedy. And, sure: Comedians can be uneven, desperate, problematic. Can’t we all? Vanessa, there’s a naivete in your suggestion which I envy – but you may as well suggest that we stop having babies. Or stop tweeting.

The counterfactual

“Just a reminder that if Will Smith had slapped Betty White for a joke she made (however insensitive), she easily could have fallen backward, cracked her skull, and died of a brain bleed.” —Emily Porter. M.D., Twitter

What if Chris Rock was not Chris Rock, but instead the fragile, re-animated corpse of Eleanor Roosevelt – and instead of his hand, Will Smith had used a club? What then? Hell, what if Rock were an endangered orchid, and Smith a giant barrel of crude oil? What if…

There is some stupidity that is so total, so annihilating, that contemplating it can yield little. So on this I can write no more except to quote internet wag and freelance writer James Hennessy: “In Year 1, I got time out for poking a kid in the face with a pencil, and the teacher said: ‘What if it were a knife?’ I’ve been militantly anti-counterfactual ever since.”

It’s racist

“There’s something that feels precious at best, and downright racist at worst, about white people’s reaction to the now-infamous smack … It’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.” —Tayo Bero, culture writer, Guardian US

I was surprised to learn that my private criticism of Will Smith was racist – or “rooted in anti-blackness” in the self-consciously elevated lingo – as I was surprised to learn that Bero could so quickly diagnose the opinion of millions.

Here, I thought, was a neat example of the alienating righteousness of millennial liberalism – the instinct to conscript every cultural murmur into its theories, and condemn those that disagree as bigots.

The rhetorical act of casting as racist the untold millions who thought Smith had badly overreacted is not just lazy, but an extraordinary act of bad faith. In fact, I struggle to believe that it can be entirely serious: what kind of blinding lather must be generated to believe this? What haze of righteousness must occur to confidently diagnose millions of people who disapproved of the assault as bigots?

I don’t believe this is an isolated incident from an individual writer, but is, in fact, exemplary of a social media–driven arms-race of preposterous, politically self-defeating condemnation that values tribal validation and clicks over intellectual honesty, good faith and political persuasion: If you were white and critical of Will Smith’s violence, you’re probably racist.

If you accept, as I do, that American democracy is diminished, that the US is polarised to the point of cultural cannibalism, that its Republican party has become a grotesque cult to the personality of the odious Donald Trump – then you are accepting that these are dangerous times for one of the world’s longest continuous democracies, and for the minority groups that call it home. In this grave context, the indulgence and bad faith of so much political argumentation is reckless and self-defeating.

Love will make you do crazy things

“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people … Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said. I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.” —Will Smith, Oscars acceptance speech

Who could have foreseen that the Fresh Prince would become the Mad King? Not me, though I’ve long found Will Smith to be both charming and creepily messianic, which can happen when you’re paid $100 million to play a wise-cracking alien-hunter.

The man that brought you “Boom! Shake the Room” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” is the same man who recently wrote of his ambitions: “Powered by burning passion, my creative impulses would forge the finest expression of anything I touched: movies, music, family, children, businesses, marriage.”

If the slap wasn’t sufficiently dramatic, or the profane threat he repeated from his seat afterwards, there was the fact that Will Smith returned to the same stage, only half an hour later, to receive the Oscar for Best Actor.

Apparently, he had shrugged off the officials who had asked him to leave, thus allowing him to enjoy a rapturous ovation from the same crowd that had only an hour earlier murmured its agreement with a monologue denouncing “toxic masculinity”.  

Smith’s was a strange speech: cryptically allusive and strangled by the dual shock of having won a major Oscar while also having just scandalised himself.

But what really distinguished Smith’s speech were the self-pitying justifications he gave for his violence: that his hate came from a place of love; that he was a protective husband; that he’s a maligned and overly scrutinised celebrity. “I know to do what we do, you’ve got to be able to take abuse,” he said, clutching his golden statue. “You’ve got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you’ve got to be able to have people disrespecting you and you’ve got to smile and you’ve got to pretend like that’s okay.”

Smith apologised to the Academy, but conspicuously not to Rock; his contrition was faint and qualified. This changed in subsequent days, when that contrition became fuller, effusive. He apologised to Rock directly, resigned from the Academy, and declared himself to be “a work in progress”.

Aren’t we all, Will.

Martin McKenzie-Murray

Martin McKenzie-Murray is the author of The Speechwriter and A Murder Without Motive: The Killing of Rebecca Ryle.

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