Aside from Chris Rock’s comedy tour now being sold-out - balcony seat tickets with a face value of $61 are reportedly fetching nearly $1,000 after the slap he received from Will Smith in front of nearly 17 million television viewers at the Oscars. He cited yesterday how he is “still processing” the incident that took place during the live broadcast of the Academy Awards on Sunday night.
For those still catching up, Rock made a joke about the actor’s wife, alluding whether wittingly or unwittingly to a medical condition called alopecia. This incited an enraged Smith to get up from his seat and deliver a smack and some not-so-mild-mannered expletives towards Rock.
Rock, on the job, and with the broadcast still in play, handled it like a professional, joking how he just got smacked by Will Smith and going on to deliver the Best Documentary award.
The incident soon dominated the headlines, instead of the cinematic excellence that the night had just celebrated and honored, especially the groundbreaking ‘CODA’ to whom the Academy dealt out the night’s highest honor, that of Best Picture, and the very first Oscar to Troy Kotsur, who also became the very first deaf male actor to win an Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
In all, a night of many milestones.
Not to forget the superb trifecta of female hosts, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall who carried out their hosting responsibilities flawlessly. And yet we weren’t really talking about them the next day, were we?
This too, after a pared down ceremony last year along with the two years of live events and broadcasts that did not take place.
Late night talk show hosts had an especially good night, reducing the incident to a veritable series of punch lines.
“The 94th Academy Awards were held last night and featured the first live performance of ‘We Don’t Talk About Bruno,’ from the Disney musical ‘Encanto,’ followed by an unbelievable live performance of ‘We Don’t Talk About Jada.’”- Seth Meyers
“And by the way, no one did anything. A whole roomful of people, no one lifted a finger. Spider-Man was there, Aquaman was there, Catwoman, all sitting on their hands. No one helped Chris Rock.” - Jimmy Kimmel
“Let me say something as an objective observer: It’s never OK to punch a comedian.” - Stephen Colbert
And on and on.
So what have we learnt so far? Will Smith apparently refused to leave the ceremony when asked to by the organisers, and was allowed to accept his Best Actor honor, shortly after the incident. Not to mention the erratic and tearful acceptance speech he went on to deliver which markedly included many apologies, barring one, to Rock.
That arrived a day or so later, on the actor’s social platform, no doubt after his army of PR spinners were set to work overtime trying to contain the damage to his reputation and career, and of course to the roughly 10% they stand to earn.
The Academy began an inquiry into the incident the very next day, followed by disciplinary proceedings, which will decide whether to bar Smith from the Academy and future awards altogether or to penalize him.
But what of that.
Truly it all goes without saying that applying a little grace and dignity, not just for his own sake but for the others who are in attendance, the actors, organizers, fellow nominees, the rest of the hosts of the ceremony would have perhaps gone a longer way.
On a night when he was slated to win his very first Oscar, Smith unwittingly took the night down even for himself, owing to his lack of self-control and anger. Not to mention, precariously perpetuating deeply reactive behavior at a time followed by a few tenuous years of deep social and racial reckoning following the death of George Floyd.
Smith was not just representing himself at the Oscars, but also the Williams family. He was nominated for playing the role Venus and Serena Williams’ father in the biographical “King Richard.” The night was just as much about the Williams sisters and their family also.
Not to mention the stage that had been extended to him by the Academy, the platform to say and be and do, to the best of his ability, was instead not used as a means to celebrate milestones, incite meaningful conversation and push forth valuable thoughts and ideas.
In 2015, Viola Davis on becoming the first Black actress to win an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series for How to Get Away with Murder, celebrated this historic win by criticising the industry for the lack of Emmy-worthy roles for Black women. “… the only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there,” she pointed out.
Frances McDormand, on winning an Oscar for Best Actress in 2018, used the stage to push for more racial and gender diversity in Hollywood, leaving us with the words “inclusion rider,” – a call to actors and actresses to include clauses within their contracts demanding a diverse crew. Their words reverberate even today.
So here we are in the post-pandemic, post Donald Trump, post #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter era.
The pity in Will Smith’s behavior lies in the risk of it now being applied to an entire generation of young black men and women who do not identify with it, who are fighting to achieve their own progressive rights, and who are themselves trying to break barriers. And yet here it is, on a platform that it is, and all one can ask is, is this how far we’ve come?
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