Let’s start with the fact that it was a crap joke.
We all know that by now, and even Chris Rock has admitted it was a misfire that was ill-considered and in bad taste. Whether Rock knew about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia or not, at its core, the simple truth was that the joke was a groaner. That does not come close to excusing what Will Smith did in response, of course, and I’ll get to that shortly, but the joke was a literal eye-roller. Pinkett Smith did just that when Rock made the comment about her hair or lack thereof.
People far more qualified than I am have weighed in on The Slap, but Will’s response was obviously bad for all kinds of reasons, from how it perpetuated unfair stereotypes about Black men, to how it stole Jada’s agency, to how a Black man like Rock — especially Rock himself, seeing as how he directed the 2009 documentary Good Hair — should’ve known that you never discuss a Black woman’s hair… it goes on and on, and some of the takes have been really smart. Others, less so, but then, that’s how these things go.
My own opinion on the matter takes all of these considerations into account, as well as the fact that violence is never the answer in a situation like this, but first, I think it’s important to cover a few key items.
Will Smith should not be barred from the Academy Awards moving forward. He should not have his Oscar taken away from him. He should not be “canceled” in any way, or boycotted, shunned, or anything else that people claim has happened to them after they say or do something dumb and don’t want to accept the consequences of it. He made a mistake in the heat of the moment, which happens to all of us because we’re human. That doesn’t mean he should be ostracized from civilized society.
Just to make it clear, I was saying this on Monday morning, before he posted a world-class apology to his Instagram account that should be studied for its perfection, whether he wrote it himself or had more than a little help from his publicist. The bottom line is that he accepted responsibility for his impulsive behavior and owned up to what he did, which was a crime, mind you, and apologized to everyone involved. That includes Rock, whom he asked for forgiveness. For his part, Rock did the same thing in a separate apology, owning his bad joke and apologizing for its poor taste, thus making it clear that he does not consider himself blameless in the affair. The Slap may have been uncalled for but Rock knows there can be consequences when you play the provocateur, he just didn’t think those consequences would come for him on live TV in front of 16 million people.
If we’re keeping score, that’s two very famous men in their 50s, who happen to be Black, who acted like adults in the aftermath of an incident in which they were both more than a little childish. Sure, it took 24 hours in Smith’s case, and dancing the night away at the Vanity Fair party while journalists snapped photos instead of asking tough questions wasn’t a good look for anyone but isn’t a thoughtful apology what we want from celebrities when they get into trouble? What more should we really expect from Smith?
Obviously, we expected him not to get into trouble in the first place. Smith, for instance, could have stood up and told Rock that his wife’s alopecia is off-limits and he should be ashamed of himself, or, perhaps even better, he could have done absolutely nothing and let his Strong Black Wife handle it herself since she was the one who was the butt of the joke. He could have restrained himself entirely and, in the process, not taken something else from her that Rock had already taken. Jada Pinkett Smith is hardly a shrinking violet or wallflower who can’t defend herself. Will, of all people, should’ve known this, and more importantly, he should have recognized it in the moment, but he didn’t. He had to cast himself as her knight in shining armor — a role that no one asked him to play and embarrassed three families — the Smith family, Richard Williams and his family, and the showbiz family that is the Academy. The whole fiasco could’ve been so easily avoided — why rehearse the show if presenters are going to improvise, and where was security? — but that horse is long out of the barn, so let’s focus on next steps and what those may look like.
To do so, we must address the Oscars themselves, as the awards show that barely registered with the public last year has now dominated the discourse for four days in a row, but for all the wrong reasons, like a dream that has turned into a nightmare for the Academy. Hosts and comedians have roasted celebrities for as long as I’ve been watching the show, and I’m pretty old. Did this cross a Rubicon, wherein those kinds of jokes can’t be told anymore? I don’t think so, but I do think that comedians and other presenters who decide to go for it and take a risk with a joke are going to be a lot more careful about how they proceed moving forward. On the other hand, I can’t imagine anyone who has witnessed the media circus this week having any desire to get themselves involved in a similar incident in the future, so I don’t think people are going to stop attending the Oscars or that the Academy needs security lined up in front of the stage like it’s a Harry Styles concert or something.
Decorum will surely return to the Dolby, though somewhat counterintuitively, I also think that this is going to make celebrities loosen up a bit. We’ve seen the collective tightening of society’s sphincter when it comes to humor and people taking themselves too seriously, and this incident has folks reeling to such an extent that it wouldn’t surprise me if they might actually allow others the benefit of the doubt when it comes to jokes that go for the jugular moving forward.
Likewise, the apologies that Smith and Rock issued should remind people that it’s okay to admit when you’re wrong. Thanks to a certain former President, it has become common to refuse to acknowledge a mistake, apologize for misbehavior, or otherwise take responsibility for one’s actions, and instead shout that they’re being canceled. Apologizing and accepting blame has been equated with weakness, which is the absolute opposite of the case. I like to believe that two absurdly famous men owning their bad decisions will serve as something of a beacon to others that it is, in fact, okay for them to do so as well.
Having said all that, there is something about The Slap that has me very worried, even despite Will’s admission of guilt after the fact. I have a bunch of friends who are comedians, and in the immediate aftermath of the moment, they were almost universally in an uproar about what message this will send to anyone who takes issue with a comedian’s joke. Consciously or not, Smith sent the message that if you’re offended by something you just heard on stage, it’s okay to go up and confront the person who said it.
Before Sunday night, if you told me that someone in a comedy club somewhere in America would one day get up and physically attack a comedian, or even kill one, I would’ve thought that was a bit paranoid and a little outlandish. I don’t think that anymore. Now, I actually think that it’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but when.
Moments like this create a subtle shift in thinking. People who are prone to the kind of violent overreaction that Smith expressed don’t consider the aftermath of what happened, or Will’s apology, as an admission of guilt or the star having regret for his actions. They view this as a form of permission, allowing them to express themselves similarly, but without the guardrails of fame that ultimately controlled the situation. So I think you’re going to see the opposite effect, with people pursuing their 15 minutes of fame by attacking comedians because of a joke they made, or if you’re the comedian, by attacking a heckler. Neither provocation warrants a physical reaction. On top of that, there will always be people who support that kind of behavior, people who should know better but can’t help but call it brave or twist it into a battle cry against wokeness or some other nonsense that won’t have any basis in reality.
How do I know? Because somewhat lost in all this back and forth was Tiffany Haddish’s response to The Slap. She said it was, “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”
Tiffany Haddish is a stand-up comedian… who thinks another stand-up being slapped for a joke is “the most beautiful thing” she’s ever seen. That is not okay, and it’s emblematic of a larger problem at play here, both in Hollywood and society in general — an unfortunate lack of class and civility.
Neil Turitz is a journalist, essayist, author, and filmmaker who has worked in and written about Hollywood for nearly 25 years, though he has never lived there. These days, he splits his time between New York City and the Berkshires. He’s not on Twitter, but you can find him on Instagram @6wordreviews.
You can read a new installation of The Accidental Turitz every Wednesday, and all previous columns can be found here.