I know there are nuances. Rock belittled Smith and Pinkett Smith at the Oscars a few years ago. Pinkett Smith opts to keep her hair short because she has the autoimmune condition alopecia. Black women, historically, are over-scrutinized and undersupported, including in their choices around their hair. Spouses should defend one another.
For all those reasons and more, it would have been fair for Smith to object to Rock’s joke – with words. The man has the microphone of the world. Even if he hadn’t won the Oscar last night, for his role as Richard Williams, the father to tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams, in King Richard – mere minutes after the slap; the room was still reeling – Smith would have had ample opportunity to make a statement that reflected the love he insisted he wants to embody: Alopecia affects millions; no one should speculate why a woman shaves her head, or indeed does whatever she wants with her hair; making fun of someone’s appearance is cruel, etc. Good grief, Rock himself made a documentary, 2009′s Good Hair, about the cultural implications of Black hair. Smith could have eviscerated Rock through grace. He would have been a hero.
Instead, he turned himself into the embodiment of toxic masculinity, on a night that was built to celebrate Hollywood’s humanism. For the first time, the ceremony had an all-Black producing team. The three hosts (Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes) mocked Florida’s disgusting “Don’t Say Gay” law. Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer Latinx person to win best supporting actress. Troy Kotsur became the first deaf best supporting actor winner, for playing a salty fisherman whose love for his daughter trumps his own needs in CODA. Jessica Chastain won best actress for playing Tammy Faye Bakker, who may have robbed her parishioners blind, but preached love for AIDS victims. Smith’s act buried all of that in its wake.
The most nominated film going into the ceremony was Jane Campion’s The Power of the Dog, a long look at how brutalizing toxic masculinity is (it includes a literal toxin). Campion won best director for it – and, for the first time in history, was the second woman in a row to win that award (after Chloe Zhao for Nomadland). We should have been able to celebrate that. But no.
Of course, Campion created her own controversy at a previous awards show this year – again, with Smith involved – when she implied that she had a harder time succeeding as a director than the Williams sisters did succeeding at tennis. But Campion apologized to the Williams, and her apology felt sincere and properly contrite.
As of this writing, Smith has not apologized, other than to his fellow nominees and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. (Adding, narcissistically, that he hoped to be invited back.) He hasn’t apologized to Rock, who made his joke while presenting the best documentary award. He hasn’t apologized to Questlove, who won that award for Summer of Soul. Smith hasn’t acknowledged the terrible irony of that – that his act of violence overshadowed a film that shone a light on how a major Black cultural event about peace, love and music was sidelined and diminished for decades.
Hollywood’s humanism sure tripped over itself after the slap. The room went silent, unsure how to handle this particular intersection. Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry both came over to speak to Smith. (I don’t know who spoke to Rock backstage; he disappeared, and has not said a word since, other than the LAPD’s reporting that he declined to press charges.) When Smith won Best Actor, many people still rose to applaud him. Throughout his speech, he was tearful and so obviously rattled it was hard not to feel for him – you could see that he knew he had ruined this moment, and all the years that led to it. He is only the fifth Black man to win best actor, and the first in 16 years.
But. Let’s look at what he said. He said, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” He said he had to “protect” his co-stars Saniyya Sidney and Demi Singleton, who play, respectively, Venus and Serena, and Aunjanue Ellis, who plays their mother, Oracene. He said God was calling on him to be a defender to his people; that he wants to be “an ambassador of that kind of love and care”; and that “love will make you do crazy things.”
What kind of “love and care” are we talking about here, however? Thousands of people on social media are supporting Smith for defending his wife, and by extension all Black women. But what about the millions of victims of abuse who certainly could be triggered by hearing a man say that violence is care, and that love “made” him hit?
We haven’t heard from the women who Smith claims to have been protecting, but I squirmed for them. Does Ellis, a formidable actress, need her male co-star’s protection? Can’t Pinkett Smith speak for herself? And what of the equally troubling undercurrents on social media – Smith being depicted as under the heel of his wife, with Pinkett Smith as some kind of Lady Macbeth?
Smith did not visit the press room after his speech. He went back to his seat. The camera kept returning to him. He kept smiling. The show went on. Schumer made the best joke of the night – I was changing, did I miss something? The vibe feels different – but the evening never recovered. At the Vanity Fair after-party, Smith held his Oscar aloft and danced to his own songs. Pinkett Smith declared it a great night. Smith tweeted a joke about how you can’t invite Philly anywhere, as if his background also “made” him do it.
I keep picturing the moment after the slap, as Smith strode offstage, straightening his jacket, looking … proud? Most troubling was a tweet from Smith’s son Jaden: “And that’s how we do it.” Violence is a legacy we pass on. A lot of words are expended justifying it. I wish we devoted as many to ending it.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Sign up for The Globe’s arts and lifestyle newsletters for more news, columns and advice in your inbox.