By D. Allan Kerr
Believe me, I understand there are more important things going on in the world than a Hollywood awards shows, including an ongoing tragedy in Ukraine with global and generational implications.
But having had a few days to digest what happened on stage at this year’s Academy Awards event, it kinda irritates me how much The Slap still irritates me.
The staggering sense of entitlement exhibited by Will Smith was disturbing enough.
So assured his celebrity would cocoon him from repercussion he felt he could rise from his seat, smack one of his peers silly on stage and then be allowed back on the same stage to accept his Best Actor Oscar.
But even more maddening is that he was right.
I saw the whole thing unfold live. Everyone else in the house had gone to bed but I had some writing to do so I was on our living room couch with my laptop in front of me.
I had the TV on because I was curious to see how Power of the Dog – and Benedict Cumberbatch in particular – would make out, because I thought it was a remarkable piece of work and some of the best acting I’d seen in a while.
I had the mute button on, because let’s face it, awards-show scripted banter can be excruciating.
But when I saw Chris Rock come on stage, I turned the volume back on.
I mean, come on – it’s Chris Rock.
Like everyone else, I thought the two of them were clowning at first.
When it became clear they weren’t, I sat mesmerized as the Hollywood elite showcased why a growing number of “average people” have become so disdainful of them.
It was utterly surreal to see Smith physically slap a popular entertainer in front of a few hundred million people, and then receive a standing ovation just 15 minutes later from the friends and associates of that same entertainer.
And in between those moments, film royalty – Denzel Washington, for cripes sake – placated and comforted the guy who had just assaulted one of their own.
The camera cut to Smith laughing and smiling whenever others following on stage referenced or made jokes about the altercation.
Meanwhile, I was wondering why he hadn’t been escorted out of the building.
Now, I totally get the desire to defend those you love. I’ve gotten myself in trouble multiple times in the past for that very reason.
But hearing Smith’s own justifications during his somewhat unhinged acceptance speech, and of others afterward, seems hugely out of whack in proportion to the offense.
It makes me want to ask those defending Smith to consider how they would feel if a white guy had strolled onto the stage and bitch-slapped Chris Rock.
Imagine even if someone like Tom Hanks, generally recognized as the nicest guy in Hollywood (alongside Denzel, of course) felt empowered to stroll onstage and strike Chris Rock because he felt Rock was disrespecting his wife.
Would that come across as a man defending his family or the act of an extremely privileged and disconnected celebrity? Within that visual context, I’m pretty sure the response of both the Academy and those in attendance would have been more immediate and visceral.
As iconic as he may be, Hanks likely would have been ostracized on the spot.
Hollywood sometimes has to see things in black and white.
It’s taken a few days for the movie industry to catch up to the outrage experienced spontaneously by those watching from home. It was at least three days before the Academy claimed Smith was asked to leave and refused to do so.
One of the many ironies overlooked that night was the tribute to the late Sidney Poitier during the “In Memoriam” segment of the show.
I’ve always believed the most iconic moment of Poitier’s very distinguished film career – and one of the most pivotal in film history – was the In the Heat of the Night scene in which he slaps a rich white guy in the face.
But in this case, Poitier’s character, a black police detective, is slapped by the richest man in town first, for having the audacity to question him in a murder investigation.
When you consider this movie was released in 1967, in the midst of the civil rights movement, and set in a small Southern town, Poitier’s retaliatory smack is downright heroic.
Smith’s act was not heroic.
He portrayed himself as a family protector during his tearful acceptance speech afterward, but seriously, from whom was he protecting his family?
This was not a predator. This wasn’t even some drunk guy who grabbed his wife’s ass in a bar. This wasn’t someone who had slandered his wife or attacked her character. This was a 120-pound comedian who made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s haircut.
I understand there should be sensitivity regarding her alopecia, which resulted in the loss of her hair.
But, frankly, I missed the cultural turning point when calling a woman GI Jane became an insult. My wife loves that movie, which is about a beautiful woman who kicks ass and overcomes huge obstacles to succeed.
And remember, even Will Smith’s initial reaction was to laugh at the joke. It certainly didn’t merit a physical assault.
I wouldn’t say Smith was my favorite actor before last weekend, but I’ve enjoyed a lot of his movies, and even his music from his years with DJ Jazzy Jeff. He’s obviously talented. He did a very good job portraying my number-one boyhood idol in Ali, so I’ll always feel indebted to him for that.
But mainly I’ve always been under the impression Will Smith was a decent human being.
I’m not so sure about that anymore.
Smith achieved the dream of most entertainers: In a room full of the most famous and beautiful people in the world, he got the spotlight all to himself.
He clearly didn’t seem to show much remorse when he was gettin’ jiggy with his Oscar on the dance floor afterward. His son, Jaden, reportedly tweeted after the broadcast, “And That’s How We Do It.”
Folks should have been checking out the movie CODA after it brought home the top award Sunday for Best Movie, as well as other prizes.
I definitely didn’t know much about this film beforehand and I had never heard of one of its stars, Troy Kotsur, until he became just the second deaf person in history to win an Academy Award for acting. He then proceeded to give a humorous, heartfelt speech in sign language. It was really a spectacular moment.
By midnight it was all but forgotten by most of America.
Sir Kenneth Branagh finally won an Oscar – Best Original Screenplay for his semi-autobiographical Belfast – after eight nominations in a record seven different categories.
The dazzling Ariana DeBose became the first gay woman of color to win an Academy Award, for her role in West Side Story.
Questlove gave one of the most emotionally honest speeches I’ve seen at these shows after winning the award for Best Documentary. But as it occurred immediately after The Slap, most folks were probably still too stunned to fully absorb it.
So Smith stole the show. Good for him. Now he might want to seek professional help.
Rock handled the situation with amazing restraint and class, and I don’t just mean by refusing to press charges.
Think about it. In a battle of wits, Chris Rock can go toe-to-toe with anyone.
He had a microphone, a stage and an audience of millions. He could have verbally decimated Smith after the assault, and if you watch the video you can see he might have considered it for a moment.
Instead, he acted like a pro.
I’m with Team Rock, emphatically.