I am publicly, personally, and dare I say, even spiritually, pro-slap. Historically, I’ve touted #BringBackFistfighing in response to other more heightened and dangerous methods of extralegal conflict resolution. Cases of cyberbullying, doxxing, and incel behavior writ large — in fact, a majority of online skirmishes — could all be mitigated by the laying of holy hands. As the cousin of a fist, the slap is a wake-up call. It’s not necessarily the invitation to a fight, though it is an acknowledgment that a fight can absolutely be had if the slapped continues to cross the line. It signifies that the victim has, indeed, pressed the right button at the wrong time. Here is their five-finger prize.
Will Smith popping Chris Rock is probably the most important physical interaction in Oscars history. It was a great moment, overall, for old-man strength. Smith’s body hasn’t forgotten the Ali choreography; his left hand is up by his jaw in case Rock taps into his innate Bed-Stuy-ism. Rock, for his part, remained standing after eating that slap, a credit to a strong chin and a dexterous neck. If I’m running the Academy — or I’m last night’s showrunner, Will Packer — I’m counting this as a huge win. Because for this institution, convincing people to fall in love with movies is secondary to getting people to fall in love with the Oscars.
Sure as fluffy white people like Mia Farrow and Judd Apatow might holier-than-thou the Slap, spinning it into some revisionist-history lesson on nonviolence, these two hall monitors have the easier option of minding their non-Black business. This isn’t the worst affront in Oscars canon — beloved racist John Wayne attempting to assault an Indigenous American woman, Sacheen Littlefeather, in 1973; the standing ovation given to once beloved predator Roman Polanski; and, hell, even Green Book winning Best Picture all outpace the Slap by a long shot in that department — and acting like it is denies our cultural sensibilities.
Drama, especially of the Black variety, sells. Bravo and VH1 have built empires on the idea that watching Black and brown people go at it in semi-scripted fashion could be the great unifier. The Oscars themselves dropped bags (typically between $15,000 and $25,000) for Rock’s contrarian id to cheekily disregard 2016’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign, which included the comedian taking a couple shots at both Will and Jada for boycotting — but more pointedly at Jada, implying she’d never be nominated anyway. Hiring a Black comedian to go after Hollywood’s premiere Black couple to stamp out industry progress is pretty rich, to say the least. In American culture, Black people are both commodity and fetish; the flooding responses to this spectacle more than highlights that. It leaves any false alarmism stinking of racist misread. I seem to remember Cardi B walking out of a New York Fashion Week event with a knot in her forehead the size of a walnut after laying hands on rival Nicki Minaj’s crew — and being invited back to the Met Gala and other Fashion Weeks the very next year. Why? She makes the Met spicy. It’s the same reason any award show would welcome both Machine Gun Kelly and Connor McGregor.
The moment, the 48-hour immediate afterlife of the moment, and the eventual exposé of said moment are all worth it. The Smiths and Rock know this as well and will likely capitalize on the Slap once tempers ease. Will already got the ball rolling on that front. During his Best Actor acceptance speech, Smith made the discursive connection between his King Richard character and his actions: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” Imagine the Red Table Talks, stand-up material, and literature that’ll transpire from this.
Honestly? Everyone wins (except maybe Jada, who hasn’t had a chance to say her piece on the matter yet. And Questlove, sincerest apologies to Questlove because, wow, no one cared about another revelatory piece of Black art after that).
It’s not totally clear whether Chris Rock wrote the bald joke himself, but he did decide to say it when he didn’t really have to. Will Smith is himself an odd dude in that way — one of those big-kid celebrities whose goofiness distracts some folks from how deeply calculated he is about his persona — who’s lived in the public eye for three decades and has for the last 25 years erred on the side of outward affection toward his wife through all sorts of public and private scrutiny and intrusion. It’s clear his love for her has evolved him in crucial ways. He has seemed even more defensive of that love in recent interviews to show, again, that despite a lifetime of admitted narcissistic tendencies, Will’s developed enough awareness to know when he’s sacrificing Jada’s boundaries for headlines. Rock just didn’t know Willard would sacrifice social pleasantries to prove it. But oh, did he catch on quick.
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- Parents React to the Slap