Robert Kojder on the Will Smith and Chris Rock controversy from the 94th Academy Awards…
Will Smith smacked Chris Rock at the 94th Oscars ceremony last night. This is not scripted professional wrestling. It was real.
It all went down as the Best Documentary-presenting Chris Rock was cracking some jokes before getting to the nominees, as one typically does. Chris Rock’s jokes can admittedly be on the harsher side, and by all accounts, he pushes back against the softening of comedy as an art form.
After a brief bit about how Javier Bardem wouldn’t get “lucky” if his wife Penelope Cruz didn’t win an Oscar but he did (both were nominated in the Lead Actor categories with Javier Bardem in competition with Will Smith), Chris Rock turned his attention elsewhere.
Chris Rock made a tasteless joke toward Jada Pinkett Smith, asking when the release date of G.I. Jane 2 would be, referencing her shaved head. No such movie is in production. Furthermore, the reasoning for the shaved head is a less personal choice and more resulting from a hair loss condition known as alopecia.
Will Smith seemingly tried to laugh it off before noticing a possibly upset Jada Pinkett Smith, breaking down whatever composure he was trying to maintain. He sprang to his feet, stormed the stage and physically assaulted Chris Rock. As Chris Rock attempted to diffuse the situation by explaining it was a joke (and in his mind not a problematic one, presumably because G.I. Jane is an extraordinary fictional character), Will Smith twice blared across the stage, “keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth.”
It also doesn’t help that this is not the first time Chris Rock has made such jokes about Jada Pinkett Smith, who opened up about her condition in late 2021.
Before I say a word about what happened, I want it to be known loud and clear I am addressing this unfortunate situation from a relatable place. Growing up with spinal muscular atrophy and wheelchair-bound, I had had plenty of insults hurled my way, mainly in primary immature settings such as a high school when inclusivity, representation, and diversity were not hot topics of conversation. I also know what it’s like to have a friend who wants to make a physical stand and defend you in a way that makes sense to that person out of sheer loyalty and friendship.
The keywords pertaining to those events are “high school.” I don’t know anyone who would still behave that way if something escalated from a poorly thought-out joke or cruel comment. More to the point, Will Smith’s response felt like knee-jerk high school level childish. That does not excuse Chris Rock’s joke, which everyone involved should have cleared before the show began. And if the Smiths had said no, there would be no joke and subsequent drama.
Nevertheless, Chris Rock deserves credit for rolling with the punch, so to speak, doing whatever he could to get what had already been a disastrous Oscars ceremony back on track. It’s also frustrating how little people seem to factor in the range of potential feelings and emotions from Jada Pinkett Smith’s perspective, as a gut feeling tells me she didn’t want her husband to go up there and make an ass of himself on one of the biggest nights of his life. I can’t speak for Jada Pinkett Smith, but I wouldn’t want anyone to fight my battles for me that way out of archaic expectations of masculinity.
As predicted, later in the night, Will Smith won the Lead Actor award for portraying Richard Williams (the father of living tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams) in King Richard. His acceptance speech was weird and an all over the place rambling apology preaching putting out peace and love into the world that (and not to make this a hit piece, but it needs to be said) was as hollow as everything about that movie, including his performance which felt like the type of artificial Oscar-bait designed to get a star their “overdue” gold statue because the ridiculous logic behind Academy voting dictates that it’s “his time to win.” Yes, personal opinion also comes into play, but give me a break; Will Smith has delivered better performances.
That’s not to take away any enjoyment or positivity anyone found in King Richard. It is still great that the movie exists and that people see an inspirational depiction among Black father figures. But I don’t buy for a second that Will Smith’s priority was anywhere but winning the Oscar he so badly craved. Earlier in the telecast, there is footage of him stating he doesn’t make movies for money anymore and that it’s only about giving back to communities and positivity as if he just recently didn’t participate in a live-action remake of Aladdin, the flop that was Gemini Man, and a third Bad Boys movie. Sure, Will. Whatever sentiments about love and positivity he put out throughout this awards campaign were carefully calibrated PR spin. And last night, he proved all this.
To clarify, I don’t hate Will Smith. Sure, I hate that he won over at least three superior performances. I also respectfully hope he chooses therapy to deal with these apparent anger management issues (this is not even his first example of that, as, by his admission, he contemplated murdering his abusive father, confident that he would be able to get away with it for being a beloved Hollywood celebrity). But in this situation, I think what I hate most is being right that much of the publicity felt like a phony act and having a sense of vindication (I put out one of the only rotten reviews of King Richard, citing it as a misguided and shallow story focused on the wrong characters that exists to get Will Smith an Oscar, regardless of what anyone says, including Venus and Serena Williams who served as producers). Again, that is not meant to invalidate anyone who enjoys or finds meaning in the movie.
It’s meant chiefly as justification to laugh at the Academy, who fell for this campaign and every other hollow ploy to win their respective Oscars, not nominating/voting on what was genuinely the best (and no, what I want to win is not automatically the best, but the inner workings of the Academy is another conversation entirely). Days after the final votes had been tallied, a darker, problematic side of Will Smith came out. There’s no chance he gives the same reaction at a precursor awards show, but if he did, he would be kissing that Oscar victory goodbye. It’s also upsetting and concerning seeing waves of toxic masculine support condoning violence, even if it is a hurtful joke toward someone’s wife. If you poll women on whether or not they find that behavior attractive and heroic, they will most likely reply that it’s appalling and somewhat scary.
Everyone, do better. This entire situation could have been handled anywhere and everywhere but that stage, with the love and understanding Will Smith claims to want to put out to the world. Violence is never the answer.
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Critics Choice Association. He is also the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com.