After moving up their meeting regarding Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on stage at the Oscars which feels like 14 years ago, the Academy leadership (“leadership”) has taken the step of banning Smith, who has already resigned his membership from the Academy, from the Oscars and all Academy events for ten years. In response, Smith released a brief statement, saying, “I accept and respect the Academy’s decision.” Let’s talk about this decision, because it’s the confluence of several factors.
One, ten years is too long, and I bet they don’t even stick to it. It’s not that people will forget The Slap—it is destined to be referenced in bad bits at awards shows forever—but the furor will fade. Everyone will unclench. And somewhere down the road, at a point when there is new leadership in charge of the Academy, and the board of governors has turned over a couple times, someone’s going to propose inviting Will Smith to the Oscars, as a conciliatory gesture, as a sign of everyone having moved on, etc etc. Maybe they never invite him back into the membership, maybe he would decline even if they did, but I bet before the ten years is up, we see Will Smith back at the Oscars and everyone hugs and it’s all fine.
Two, Smith is not prevented from being nominated for Oscars going forward. He just couldn’t attend the ceremony if he was nominated. And no, he does not have to give back his Oscar, and people should stop insisting he does, because the Academy hasn’t revoked awards for the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski, and you simply cannot equate what Will Smith did to what they did. Which brings us to…
Three, even though this is an overreaction by the Academy, it isn’t going far enough for many Academy members. Like, for a LOT of Academy members. People within the Academy are FURIOUS, and many expressions of that fury have been made to the leadership of the organization. An Academy member told me many of his fellow members think that because what Smith did “sullied the image of the Oscars” (LOL to that, this is the same show that let Seth MacFarlane sing “We Saw Your Boobs” on stage), he should be blacklisted from the Academy forever, and he should have to forfeit his award, and pay a huge fine—a donation to an Academy-supported charity wouldn’t be a bad idea and could have been part of a milder punishment—and on, and on.
There are basically two impulses at play. The Academy leadership has to satisfy their membership, many of whom are out for blood. But they are also aware of the lines set by precedents from Harvey Weinstein and Roman Polanski (Woody Allen is mooted, he has never been a member of the Academy). Weinstein, Polanksi, and Bill Cosby are the only people to be expelled from the Academy since the adoption of the post-MeToo code of conduct. Smith resigned his own membership, so that takes expulsion off the table anyway, but they can’t do anything to him more severe than they’ve done to those three, because again, you cannot say what Will Smith did is worse than what Weinstein, Polanski, and Cosby did.
Thus, a ten-year ban. It’s long enough to be significant, but it’s not permanent blacklisting. It’s still stupid and an overreaction stemming from the Academy completely failing to act on Oscar night, but it’s meant to satisfy the portion of the membership baying for blood. Hopefully now everyone can step back and we can put this incident into proper perspective, which that while what Will Smith did was shocking and inappropriate, the Oscars have far bigger problems and if Mel Gibson shows up for an award at some point in the next ten years, I hope the Academy is prepared to grapple with that. What Will Smith did was shocking, but so was all that racist, antisemitic, misogynistic sh-t Gibson said all those times over the years.
The Academy’s actions regarding Weinstein, Polanski, and Cosby set a precedent for dealing with members convicted of criminal charges. But now they have a precedent set for dealing with members who transgress behavioral standards (as Smith has not been charged with anything, this remains a behavioral incident, not a criminal one). So the Academy better be ready to deal with their other unruly members, or else Will Smith’s punishment will look even more craven and racialized than it already does.