What Will Smith should have done

Will Smith cries as he accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "King Richard" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)
Will Smith cries as he accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role for "King Richard" at the Oscars on Sunday, March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/AP)

Everyone loves a revenge movie. The bad guy (usually it’s a guy) commits enough mayhem to trigger the collective anger and anxiety of the audience. Then the final reel comes along, delivering the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Enter the hero, who puts the villain in his place.

Then everyone lives happily ever after.

We saw that plot in microcosm unwind during Sunday night’s Academy Awards telecast. It was already a strange production, streamlined and retooled yet again in hopes of getting everyone off stage in time for the start of the evening news and attracting a larger audience. In short, it was shaping up to be another lackluster awards show.

Enter Chris Rock.

The comedian-actor was presenting the Oscar for best documentary when he followed up a couple of unfunny jokes with a jab at actress Jada Pinkett Smith. She suffers from alopecia, which causes hair loss. Rock’s remark, “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it," was an attempt to make a joke out of her medical condition.

The line seemed like a throwaway. Perhaps Rock thought it up and kept it in the back of his mind in case his initial cracks died a quiet death. They did, and he launched his ill-fated punchline.

Actor Will Smith, sitting up front since he was all but guaranteed to take home the trophy for best actor for his role in "King Richard," at first laughed at this joke delivered at his wife’s expense. But then seeing she was not doubled over in hilarity, he became angry. Seemingly reprising his role in the biopic "Ali," Smith ascended the stage, walked up to Rock, and slapped him across the face. The sound dropped from the telecast, but reliable reports tell us that Rock was surprised, but not fully chastened, and Smith returned to his seat yelling for Rock to, “Keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth.” Twice.

Oh, Hollywood. Where rich people live out our fantasies writ large (and small, these days on TVs, laptops and smartphones). It’s a seedy business, and always has been (read Joan Didion and David Mamet for some eye-opening observations), yet ironically it is a business rife with wokeness. Often, wokeness run amok.

With a terrible war raging in Ukraine and so many of the faithful decked out in their blue and yellow ribbons in honor of the embattled home team that is giving Russia all it can handle, one would think violence would be the last thing to intrude on this year’s Oscars.

Evidently, Will Smith didn’t get the memo. Or he was working from a different script. In fact, it felt in tune with the evening’s homages to "The Godfather," "Pulp Fiction" and James Bond. Many even leapt up to cheer him on. Hollywood may be the greatest shark pool on the planet, but it likes to pretend that playing nice is always job one.

In the cold, harsh light of morning, however, it’s clear that Smith’s slap was out of bounds. Many will believe he had a right to defend his wife’s honor. I can’t quibble with that. But there was a higher road available; the road clearly not taken.

Had Smith stayed seated and instead used his subsequent acceptance speech to talk about the importance of family and how all of us are judged by our words and actions, without mentioning Rock, he would have emerged as the true victor. In his actual speech, Smith talked about being “a light” and a “vessel” for good (probably catchphrases a $500-an-hour Rodeo Drive guru sold him). Yet, if he really wanted to be those things, he missed his chance.

Sometimes, the pen is mightier than the sword or slap.

Even in this mixed-up world we live in, where revenge on screen serves as a safe outlet for our own pent-up aggression and disappointments, violence is never the answer.

But let’s not make too much of a spat between millionaires. The stage of the Dolby Theatre is a long way from the bombed-out streets of Ukraine, the backstreets of any major American city, or the fields where angry militias shoot at targets they hope one day will be replaced by perceived enemies. Yet, violence is violence. As Robert Kennedy said during an equally fraught and dangerous time in American history, “This much is clear: violence breeds violence, repression brings retaliation, and only a cleansing of our whole society can remove this sickness from our soul.”

Sometimes, the pen is mightier than the sword or slap. Too bad Will Smith didn’t realize this in the heat of the moment, that a few well-chosen, pointed words would have had a much greater impact.

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Headshot of John J. Winters

John J. Winters Cognoscenti contributor
John J. Winters teaches at universities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, and is the author of "Sam Shepard: A Life."



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