Obviously, this was not how anyone wanted the night to go. Will Smith has long been admired and beloved by his peers, goodwill you could feel every time he was nominated for and then won an award for his performance in King Richard. This was an “it’s his time” Oscar campaign, his win the culmination of a decades-long career in entertainment that includes two previous Best Actor nominations. Winning Best Actor should have been the capstone of all that buildup, but the 2022 Oscars are now inextricably linked to the lowest public moment of Smith’s career.
Of course, Chris Rock never should have made that joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith. She has spoken publicly about having alopecia before, but even without that, are we not past making jokes about people’s appearance? It was never okay, and it’s amazing that Rock, who has previously made tasteless (and racist) jokes at the Oscars, and has also made jokes at Jada Pinkett-Smith’s expense, is still throwing out these kinds of lines. But that doesn’t excuse Will Smith’s reaction.
There just aren’t any winners here. It’s a calamity all the way around. And it was excruciating to watch Smith process his mortification and humiliation in real time during his acceptance speech. I don’t even know how it would have worked, but it was almost instantly clear the Oscars needed to cut the broadcast and regroup in the aftermath. Give everyone a moment to breathe, to collect themselves. To figure out how to move forward because the show CAN’T go on as normal, not after something like that. Watching the show proceed like nothing happened was jarring and surreal and only added to the shock of the moment. Again, I do not pretend to know what cutting the Oscars mid-telecast would even look like, but that was an unprecedented moment in the bad way, and it seems like just taking a moment to check in with the people involved would be the compassionate thing to do, if not “good TV”. Not that THAT was good TV, no one wants the Oscars to be chaotic like that.
The Academy issued a statement on social media, and the sheer number of people in the responses asking why Smith wasn’t hauled off the show is unsettling.
The Academy does not condone violence of any form.— The Academy (@TheAcademy) March 28, 2022
Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world.
the amount of ppl calling for him to be arrested? yâ€™all are telling on yourselves https://t.co/qMMJ05M2QR— Kathleen Newman-Bremang (@KathleenNB) March 28, 2022
Again, there is no excusing one person hitting another, for any reason, but is making this a legal matter going to help? No. And Chris Rock is declining to press charges anyway. Nor should anyone be speculating that Smith might have to return his Oscar for violating the Academy’s code of conduct, not while Roman Polanski still has his Oscar which he could not collect in person lest he be arrested for sexual assault. Let’s be honest, though, the entirety of the NY Post article about Smith possibly returning his Oscar and most of the commentary around Smith being removed from the show or even arrested has racial overtones.
But again, there is that sense that the show just rolling on like nothing happened was deeply weird and only increased the bizarreness of the rest of the show. Everyone was processing what happened in the moment, as the Oscars attempted to push through it without pause, but now that it’s over and there is a little space to process, what is needed isn’t condemnation, it’s compassion. Yes, we call out what he did for how wrong it was but going beyond that to crucifixion helps no one. This is a deeply unfortunate moment that will never go away for anyone involved, including Will Smith. As I said, his highest professional achievement is now inextricably linked to his lowest professional moment. Pushing for a legal outcome is unhelpful in this case, as it is in so many cases, have we not learned anything from two years of conversations about over policing and alternative solutions to calling the cops? Empathy and compassion aren’t passive states, they are active choices, and we can choose to show both, to everyone involved.
And there are so many people who will be asked about this now, who should not have to carry any part of this. Lupita Nyong’o, who was sitting close to Will and Jada and whose reaction was fully on camera; Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry who checked in with Will and Jada in the aftermath; Bradley Cooper who exchanged words with Smith; telecast producer Will Packer whose embrace of the show being “not boring” is weird now; Questlove, whose moment winning Best Documentary will forever be overshadowed. No winners here, not even for the actual winners.
This is going to be an inescapably huge moment in Oscars’ history, but unlike the Moonlight/La La Land gaffe, it isn’t a quirky mistake that turned out fine in the end, and it’s hard to imagine there won’t be some quick and drastic changes coming to the Oscars. Not JUST because of this, but yes, in part because of how thoroughly the wheels fell off in this moment. And maybe we should also talk about awards season as a whole, about the pressure and the stress and the expectations, and if, perhaps, there are systemic changes that could be made to help participants manage all that, like ways to shorten the season, maybe. This year was extended because of the Olympics, but in general, maybe the whole awards season machine needs a look, to keep in mind the humanity of everyone involved.
If you haven’t already, take a few minutes to watch Questlove accept Best Documentary. It was an emotional moment for him, a triumph he should have shared with the world, but we were all reeling from the recent events, so give Questlove some time now.
Congrats to #SummerofSoulMovie and @questlove on winning the Academy Award for â€œBest Documentary Featureâ€. #OscarsðŸ‘ðŸ¾— Rock The Bells (@RockTheBells) March 28, 2022
â€œThis is about marginalized people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain,â€ The Roots legend said as he accepted during his acceptance speech for #SummerofSoul pic.twitter.com/Vi0jqHZa8L