A live screening of the previously recorded 94th Academy Awards ceremony ran short of three hours long, but just one moment in the top of the third hour has pervaded public discourse in the week following the Sunday night airtime.
It was not the moment Ariana Debose earned her monumental win as the first openly queer Afro-Latina to win best supporting actress for her role as Anita in “West Side Story” (2021). No, this year’s “In Memoriam” which honored recently-deceased academy members like Sidney Potier and Betty White did not make headlines the next morning. Even performances of Oscar nominated songs “Be Alive” (2021) and “No Time to Die” (2020) by Beyoncé, Billie Eilish and FINNEAS respectively were overshadowed by one slap seemingly heard across the globe.
After co-hosts Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes introduced comedian Chris Rock to present the award for best documentary, the mass lack of face masks served as his opening punchline to the audience of aristocratic industry investors in attendance. He examined the crowd, selecting best actor nominees Will Smith and Javier Bardem for his next comedy bit.
An air of awkwardness developed when Rock employed best actress nominee Penélope Cruz as the butt of his joke targeted at Bardem. “If she loses, he can’t win,” he said. “He is praying that Will Smith wins.” From that point, his next joke took a pivot toward actress Jada Pinkett Smith. He continues: “Jada, I love ya. ‘GI Jane 2’, can’t wait to see it.” His comment places Pinkett Smith, who shared publicly that her hair loss is related to alopecia, an autoimmune disease, in comparison to Demi Moore who wore a buzz cut for her role in “GI Jane” (1997).
What has taken international media outlets by storm is the fact that Will Smith, known best for his roles in “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996), “I Am Legend” (2008) — and the film that earned him is first award in the best actor category — “King Richard” (2021), proceeded to walk on stage and slap Chris Rock across the face.
Once Smith was seated again he proclaimed aloud: “Keep my wife’s name out your f— mouth,” a statement that was censored in the Oscars’ live broadcast of the previously recorded ceremony.
It should be noted that the Academy Awards have long cultivated a culture of humbling its academy members through targeted humor relayed by famous hosts and presenters. Comedian Amy Schumer who co-hosted the event made actress Jennifer Lawrence’s alleged pregnancy weight gain the butt of her joke earlier that night, setting the tone for personal-roasting in lieu of thoughtful or substantial comedic efforts.
Comedians have seen their role in popular culture shift as sociopolitical conditions continue to develop and as time progresses. #OscarsSoWhite makes a resurgence annually and with the continual call for the academy to recognize marginalized artists’ films, the Oscars have made a string of changes to the show’s format to make the night a spectacle; entertainment that leaves a lasting-impression on those who have tuned in and foster fear in the person who risks missing out. The issue lies in the misogyny and sexist messaging that forms the basis of this entertainment.
Over 16.8 million people tuned into at least some part of this year’s previously recorded show. Even more have gravitated to coverage of this incident. If a person with a disability of any kind is in attendance at any event, they should not be burdened with concern that their condition will be mocked for the entertainment of others.
During his acceptance speech for best actor, Smith spoke on forms of abuse saying, “In this business you … have people disrespecting you and you got to smile and pretend like that’s okay,” he said. The Smith family have developed displays of strategic vulnerability to engage with followers while attempting to remain elusive figures. Will Smith has expressed grieving his inability to protect his mother growing up under domestic violence. His lived experiences inform his response to the glaring abuse of power present when a comedian directs a room full of people’s attention to a side effect of her illness.
The constant need to meme current events and the entitled-nature of all forms of public opinion shed light on a sinister standard in spaces that follow respectability politics. To continue fitting in amongst a crowd who promotes professionalism as a racialized person whose identities have been placed as contradictory to those ideologies, little grace is extended for breaching the code of conduct. For Smith, he addressed a culmination of jokes made at his wife’s expense by Chris Rock.
It is becoming increasingly important to shift away from advocating for representation in respectable spaces. Ariana Debose and Troy Kostur both earned recognition in the supporting role categories, representing Afro-Latin and deaf populations respectively. These wins, while deserving of celebration, do not provide tangible benefits to the people who see themselves represented on-stage.
If it is belligerent, aggressive or vulgar to defend the safety of immunocompromised people during a performative awards ceremony, there must be room for collective divestment from that space in favor of one that practices inclusivity and accountability. Will Smith’s resignation from the Academy marks action in that very direction.