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The sad irony of Will Smith's Chris Rock slap

Smith was supposed to be honoring Richard Williams' example of Black fatherhood. But the actor allowed his ego and machismo to ruin the moment.
Image: Will Smith
Will Smith cries as he accepts the Oscar Award for best actor in "King Richard" at the 94th Academy Awards in Los Angeles, on March 27, 2022. Brian Snyder / Reuters

On Sunday night, millions watched Hollywood icon Will Smith smack comedian Chris Rock in the face during the live Academy Awards show. Lots of people have lots of opinions about this moment, and what led up to it. On Monday, the academy said it was officially opening an investigation into the incident. Smith has since apologized; his mom said the slap was out of character; his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, has called for "healing."

But as a Black woman and a survivor of domestic violence, I was traumatized by it.

I watched in confusion as Smith stormed toward Rock after his wife was the target of a tasteless bald joke. After he returned to his seat, Smith repeatedly screamed at Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f------ mouth.”

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It was surreal and shocking. And it overshadowed what should have been a powerful celebration of a Black family, and the many challenges they overcame. Because the show must go on, right?

And indeed, the Oscars did. Moments after the attack, Smith returned to the stage to accept his award for best actor in the film “King Richard.” The Hollywood leading man tearfully blamed “love” for his actions (an excuse often employed by abusers), but refused at the time to apologize to Rock. I watched in disbelief as he received an ovation from the audience. And I wondered how often must women be reminded that powerful but potentially violent men live by different standards?

The irony was stark, given that Smith was being rewarded for his depiction of positive Black fatherhood. In “King Richard,” Smith plays Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Serena and Venus Williams. Williams is described in the film’s bio as “an undeterred father instrumental in raising two of the most extraordinarily gifted athletes of all time, who will end up changing the sport of tennis forever.” 

Smith spoke of the importance of defending one’s family, but added insult to injury by twisting the concept of protection to justify aggression.

The parallel appeared completely lost on Smith, however. Smith spoke of the importance of defending one’s family, but added insult to injury by twisting the concept of protection to justify his aggression, and making this moment all about himself.

It should have been about Williams. Through grit, hard work, commitment and love, he helped his two little Black girls defeat the odds over and over again as they rose through the very white ranks of elite tennis. 

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But the film was also bigger than just one man, trampling on gross, outdated stereotypes about “deadbeat” Black fathers and their daughters. But while the so-called crisis of Black fatherhood may be more complicated than politicians have made it out to be, it remains a problem. This is in large part because for decades, Black communities have struggled to repair familial bonds frayed by systemic issues such as poverty and racist incarceration practices. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the poverty rate for Black people was 18.8 percent in 2019; Black incarceration rates are falling, but Black men remain disproportionately likely to be put in prison. Given these grim realities, and a whole host of other issues that plague the Black community due to centuries of oppression, it is unsurprising that many Black families have been severely fractured.  

In Williams, however, we had a Black father who fought — metaphorically — for his family, who stood strong and proud and unashamed. It was a portrait of a Black family who loved fiercely. It was a portrait of a Black family who thrived

And it is a portrait now overshadowed by the toxicity of patriarchy and machismo. Both men can be wrong here: It can certainly be argued that Rock’s joke was misogynistic and tasteless. Many have pointed out the complicated cultural importance of Black hair and beauty, and noted why Rock’s choice to single out Pinkett Smith’s baldness might have touched a nerve.

And yet — is this really the example of fatherhood Smith wants to represent?

Black women like me deserve to be defended and protected. But we don’t need our boyfriends and husbands to assault every idiot who makes an offensive joke. And many of us know very well what can happen when that attitude turns inward, toward the family those same boyfriends and husbands claim to cherish.  

“We don’t know all the details of what happened,” Williams, via his son Chavoita LeSane, told NBC News. “But we don’t condone anyone hitting anyone else unless it’s in self-defense.” Smith was supposed to be honoring this man’s example on Sunday. Instead, he allowed his ego to undermine it. That’s not being a good father. And it’s definitely not love.


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