When was the last time that mainstream media paid this much attention to black-on-black violence? For much of the past week, the Academy Awards historic incident has been the top story in broadcast and print media. The picture is indelible: Oscar-winning Will Smith leaving his seat, marching onstage and slapping comedian emcee Chris Rock hard across the face because Rock found humor in Smith’s wife’s struggle with alopecia. Jada Pinkett Smith has battled the auto-immune disorder that results in hair loss, and her pain from Rock’s “joke” was reflected on her face.
Smith’s physical assault was shocking. Viewers wondered if it was staged, a bizarre set-up in an otherwise drivel-driven awards event notable for many failed attempts at humor. But slowly it sunk in that this was real as Smith, back in his seat, kept up the F-bomb harangue against Chris Rock. When he got up again to claim the Oscar for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard, Smith self-referentially apologized to everyone except Rock. Despite Smith’s tears (he is an actor, after all), I’m not convinced he understands the gravity of what he did. Describing his child rearing practices in 2013, he boasted “We don’t do punishment. Punishment is too negative.”
Consider the message Smith signaled to viewers, especially young people watching: violence is how you communicate your anger. Consider the message he sent to those already racist or susceptible to ugly stereotypes: black men are violent, can’t control their impulses and should be feared. Almost on cue, Fox and other right-wing media carried these messages.
What about the message to the world of stand-up comedians, many of whom earn their living pushing the envelope: if you don’t like my humor, beat me up, pull a knife on me, shoot me. His message to women: you need a man to deal with verbal insults. As Kareem Abdul Jabbar observed, in an eloquent post, “she’s a very capable, tough, smart woman who can single-handedly take on a lame joke at the Academy Awards show.”
So now what happens? Under other circumstances, the host organization would have called Security and had the perp cuffed and removed. Instead, Will Smith was allowed to stay till the end and reportedly partied all night. He brought disgrace on the industry, which didn’t helped itself when the audience whitewashed his behavior by giving him a standing O when he went up to accept his Oscar just minutes after the slap.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences says it is reviewing the situation. What are its options? Apparently, they’re expulsion, exclusion, suspension, reprimand, award revocation, or anything else the Academy deems appropriate.
Take away Smith’s Oscar? Not really. It honors his work, not his off-screen behavior. Think Richard Wagner, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Ernest Hemingway. Many celebrated artists have behaved abominably in their personal lives. Or the Academy could ban him for life. (Smith last night took the first step by resigning from the Academy, which doesn’t preclude his receiving awards in the future.) Apparently, only Harvey Weinstein, Polanski, and Bill Cosby have been expelled from the Academy, in those cases for their sexual misconduct. The Academy might not allow Smith to introduce the Best Actor winner at next year’s event, which isn’t even a slap on the wrist. Even pressing criminal charges would likely yield a trifling punishment. None of these seems proportionate to what he did.
Jim Carrey suggests suing Smith for $200 million. Given Smith’s estimated net worth of $350 million, perhaps a fine of $10 million, with the money going to some anger management and abuse programs would be proportionate. That might quickly chill copycat assaults on offensive comedians.
Rock handled the situation as a pro. He has indicated he doesn’t want the hassle of being the plaintiff in a criminal action. He could probably file a civil suit against Smith for damage to his reputation. But ironically the incident has enhanced his reputation. Rock’s in-person tour was sold out shortly after the deplorable incident, and the agencies were selling tickets for his first appearance in Boston for many multiples of their face price. Go figure.
Chris Rock’s comment about Jada Pinkett Smith was rude, hurtful and uncalled for. I like a certain amount of edgy humor, but many stand-up comics go too far for my taste. The answer, however, is to change the channel, don’t buy tickets to their shows, speak out verbally and, as Stephen Colbert advised, “don’t laugh at their jokes.”
Whatever they decide, we should not expect the Academy’s Board of Governors to distinguish themselves by their response. The Academy should stop televising the event live. Those who care can check out the lavish, risque gowns and handsome actors and beautiful actresses on cable and other sources. We can read about who won what after the fact. Oscar night’s lame humor, tawdry costumes, and cheesy behavior is hardly the best way to market an evolving industry that has given so much pleasure and artistic significance to audiences worldwide.