Last night at the Academy Awards (a.k.a. “the Oscars”), comedian Chris Rock was on stage to present an award. As most comedians do in this situation, he told a few jokes. As is customary, the audience is typically the subject of these jokes. In his final joke, Chris made a comment about Jada Smith, the wife of actor Will Smith: “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2 Movie, can’t wait to see it.” Seconds later the camera showed a laughing Will Smith and a disapproving Jada Smith. A few seconds after that, Will Smith walked on stage and hit (punched or slapped) Chris Rock and walked back to his seat. He then used vulgarity to tell Chris not to ever mention his wife again. Below you will find the “clean” version of what happened.
About 20 minutes later, Will Smith won his first Academy Award for best actor in a film. The audience stood and applauded Will and he was embraced on stage by several actors. While on stage, he apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees. He also invoked God and said that he is being “called on to love people and to protect people.” He also said that “love will make you do crazy things.” In essence, he was saying that he hit Chris Rock because he was being a “fierce defender of his family,” in the same way Richard Williams was for his family (the role he was playing in King Richard).
It would be easy to say this incident involves actors, and we don’t need to concern ourselves with Hollywood shenanigans. However, I believe there are some major lessons to be learned here. To do so, we will have to dissect this story a little deeper.
Should Chris Rock have said this joke? Jada Smith has alopecia, a disease that leads to hair loss. This is why she is bald. Did Chris know this? My guess is yes. So, should Chris have made such a joke equating her to Demi Moore when she shaved her head to play the role, G.I. Jane? The answer is complicated and open to interpretation. Comedians at the Oscars consistently make fun of actors in the audience, but where do you draw the line?
Should Will Smith have hit Chris Rock? Will Smith initially laughed at his joke, as does just about everybody in that situation. However, there are about 5 seconds not shown on camera. How did Will go from laughing to walking on stage with vengeance? My guess is he looked at his wife and felt a need to become a “fierce defender of his family.” He must have felt like her honor had been impugned and that he needed to do something. That something was hit Chris Rock.
Response to this Incident: It has been mixed. Initially, Will Smith was greeted with a standing ovation. However, the Academy has released a statement, which in-part read, “We do not condone violence.” Other actors and comedians have released statements condemning Will’s violence and his verbal response. Many have openly wondered if Will’s behavior will give others in comedy clubs permission to respond similarly.
Joe’s Perspective: Will Smith has been acting since 1990 when the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air debuted. He has acted in more movies than I can recall. He is a major star, and yet, he has never won an Academy Award. This was his biggest night. He finally won and nobody is talking about that. No one is talking about his performance as the father of Venus and Serena Williams. They are all talking about this incident. Most people are not happy with his behavior. My guess is he lost many fans last night. My take is that in the heat of the moment, Will could have found another way to display his unhappiness with the joke about his wife. I would also guess that he deeply regrets his actions. Deep down he knows that Sidney Poitier (first black male to win an Oscar) would have found a classier way to respond. Instead of being able to enjoy the biggest moment of his professional career, he is managing damage control. Instead of gaining recognition, he lost credibility. He will forevermore be asked about this incident, having to rationalize it hundreds of times on camera.
Bottom Line: Do I think Chris Rock should have said that joke about Jada Smith, particularly since she suffers from a disease that led to her hair loss? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t have said it. And, Chris does bare some responsibility here. However, that does not warrant Will’s violent response. Like I tell my kids, “Just because your sister said something to make you mad, doesn’t mean you can hall off and punch her. You have to have composure. You have to use good judgment. You have to use restraint.”
Your Turn: What are your thoughts about this incident after watching the Academy Awards last night?