It was a shocking moment of live television: an acclaimed actor, there to receive one of the cinematic world’s most prestigious awards, slapping a fellow performer.
So unbelievable was the scene at the 94th Academy Awards that many commentators jumped to the conclusion it had been a crude publicity stunt, designed to draw in viewers to a flailing award show.
The fact audio of the exchange was cut on American broadcasts fuelled speculation. But when the uncensored footage from Australia and Japan began circulating, there was no question about what the world had just watched.
“Keep my wife’s name out of your f—king mouth,” actor Will Smith shouted at presenter Chris Rock from his front-row seat after walking down from the stage. The catalyst? A joke at Jada Pinkett Smith’s expense, mocking her shaved head despite her public battle with alopecia — an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.
The display has unsurprisingly prompted reflection from those involved. Smith quickly issued a tearful apology to his fellow nominees and the Academy, and a day later, to Rock. The Academy announced they had launched a formal review into the incident.
Rock declined to press charges, but refused to comment further even as his joke was dissected. “I’m still kind of processing what happened … at some point I’ll talk about that s–t,” he told a comedy show audience in Boston.
Meanwhile, Pinkett Smith took to Instagram with a simple message: “This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.” There was no mention of the incident or Rock’s jibe.
But the ripples from the slap, and the joke that led to it, are likely to reverberate across Hollywood, an industry that has for years been trying to recover from allegations of misogyny, racism and sexual harassment.
Already, we’ve seen much commentary trying to make sense of the slap’s significance — and what, if anything, should be done about it. The analysis, often far removed from the act itself, spans the complicated intersection of male violence, sexism, racism, and ableism, and Hollywood’s role in allowing much of this to go unchecked in its ranks for decades.
But unlike what goes on behind closed doors, in casting rooms and in the deliberations of award shows, this happened on television for the world to see, leaving many wondering if it will reignite debate over the industry’s failings.
If it is indeed a season for healing, as Pinkett Smith says, how Hollywood responds to what happened this week will need to be just the beginning.
The Academy’s history of responding to misconduct
Since the incident, there have been widespread calls for Smith to hand back his best actor award, which he received 20 minutes after the slap for his leading role in King Richard.
But Hollywood has a long history of continuing to celebrate men after they are accused, and in some cases convicted, of serious crimes. To date, no award has been rescinded.
Take Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer who was among the sparks that lit the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements against sexual abuse and harassment. More than 100 women have accused Weinstein of sexual misconduct stretching back decades.
In 2020, he was convicted of two counts of sexual assault in New York and sentenced to 23 years in prison and is now facing a slew of new charges in Los Angeles. He has pleaded not guilty to all crimes, and is appealing the New York conviction.
He won an Oscar for best picture in 1999, and a Golden Globe Award for best motion picture in 2003. In 2017, after the allegations surfaced, the Academy voted to expel Weinstein from the organisation.
“We do so not simply to separate ourselves from someone who does not merit the respect of his colleagues, but also to send a message that the era of wilful ignorance and shameful complicity in sexually predatory and workplace harassment in our industry is over,” they said. But according to the Academy’s database, he still holds the award.
Actor Bill Cosby was also expelled in 2018 “in accordance with the organisation’s standards of conduct”. The decision came shortly after the actor was found guilty of sexual assault. The conviction has since been overturned after the court found a previous prosecutor had made a deal not to criminally charge Cosby.
In the case of director and convicted sex offender Roman Polanski, it’s not a question of who knew what when. In 1978, Polanski fled the US for France after pleading guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old minor (he was 42 at the time).
Two years later he was nominated for best director, and again in 2003 — this time taking home the trophy. He wasn’t able to accept his award in person because he was a fugitive of the American justice system but received a standing ovation from the crowd. It wasn’t until 2018, 40 years later, that his Academy membership was revoked.
Those are just some of the more high-profile cases in recent years. Add in other arrests, allegations and public incidents of poor behaviour against handfuls of celebrities, and it’s a big problem.
And this week’s ceremony wasn’t the first time the potential for physical violence spilled into the Oscars auditorium. In 1973, Sacheen Littlefeather — a Native American civil rights activist — took the stage on behalf of Marlon Brando, explaining that he could not accept the best actor award due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry”.
Her address was met with a mix of applause and boos, and later in the ceremony, mockery. Decades later, she told The Guardian that actor John Wayne — who was in the wings during her speech — had wanted to forcibly remove her from the stage. “He had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him from doing so,” she said.
When it comes to Smith, Wanda Sykes, who co-hosted this year’s ceremony, told Ellen DeGeneres she feels “a little traumatised” by what happened and questioned why Smith was permitted to stay and accept his award.
“For them to let him [Smith] stay in that room and enjoy the rest of the show and accept his award, I was like how gross is this? This is just the wrong message,” she said.
Some have come to Smith’s defence, including presenter Tiffany Haddish who has co-starred alongside Pinkett Smith. “Maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, 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,” she told People magazine.
As for the ramifications for Smith, Whoopi Goldberg — a member of the Academy’s board of governors — said on The View it was unlikely his award would be revoked. “There will be consequences, I’m sure, but I don’t think that’s what they’ll do.”
The Academy’s standards of conduct policy states it is “categorically opposed to any form of abuse, harassment or discrimination”. “Members must also behave ethically by upholding the Academy’s values of respect for human dignity, inclusion, and a supportive environment that fosters creativity,” it reads.
Violations may result in suspension or expulsion from the group, revocation of Oscars, or loss of eligibility for future awards, according to the policy.
The Academy on Wednesday said they had asked Smith to leave following the incident. “We also recognise we could have handled the situation differently,” they said, describing the actor’s actions as “a deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness in person and on television”.
But Helen Young, a lecturer at Deakin University focused on race in popular culture, says the Academy’s response that they do not condone violence has been “grossly hypocritical when you look at some of the history, not only things that have happened at the Academy Awards, but the way Oscar-winning films portray violence”.
“This is one particular instance of violence that has been talked about in isolation from a lot of other things that have happened that have been either not commented on by the Academy or commented on in a much less significant and punitive way,” she says.
Hollywood’s problem with race
While many have been quick to say an award show is no place for violence, others say the discussion needs to be more nuanced given the history of racism in Hollywood and the United States more broadly.
“This is an environment that has actively exploited the place of Black people in United States society. It actively abused First Nations people in the United States for most of its history,” says Nareen Young, one of Australia’s leading workplace diversity practitioners.
“Chris Rock and Will Smith are Black men in the United States and it doesn’t matter how famous they are or how much money they have, they will still be racially profiled when they walk down the street.
“That some feminists went straight to ‘oh violence’ without understanding the race implications of that says to me a lot about contemporary feminism, who is heard, who isn’t heard and who commentates.”
Much discussion has also pointed to the long history of Black women being mistreated in Hollywood, noting that it was Pinkett Smith’s appearance that was the subject of mockery.
Some examples include when, in 1940, actor Hattie McDaniel became the first Black person to win an Academy Award for her supporting role in Gone With the Wind. Despite the accolade, she was not permitted to sit with her white co-stars and instead led to a table pushed up against the wall.
And more recently, in 2013, when nine-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis became the youngest actor to be nominated for an Oscar, she was met with an inappropriate joke from host Seth MacFarlane and quips about her name.
In a Hollywood Reporter article from that year, an unnamed person professed to be one of the Academy’s 371-strong voting block reportedly said: “I also don’t vote for anyone whose name I can’t pronounce. Quvez—? Quzen—? Quyzenay? Her parents really put her in a hole by giving her that name, Alphabet Wallis.”
Only one woman of colour has taken home the best actress prize in the award’s 94-year history — Halle Berry in 2002 for her role in Monster’s Ball. This year, Smith became only the fifth Black man to win best actor.
This lack of diversity was at the heart of the viral hashtag campaign #OscarsSoWhite. It began in 2015 in response to all 20 acting nominations for that year’s awards going to white actors. The following year, the same thing happened, prompting boycotts of the ceremony.
The creator of the hashtag campaign was April Reign, an American advocate for diversity and inclusion. Speaking to ABC News this week, she said it was telling how quickly certain people had turned on Smith.
“Will Smith has done everything by the book his entire career,” she said. “Then there is this one minute of his life, that was literally 60 seconds, that was very public … And all of a sudden, people are calling him violent, people are calling him an abuser, as if the previous 20 years have been washed away.”
Will the slap reignite discussion over the industry’s failings?
This year was meant to be a sort of rebirth for the Oscars after the diversity outrage and three years of ceremonies without hosts. Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer were selected for the honour.
And among the winners there appeared to be some positive strides. For the second year running, a woman took home the best director award (before 2021, which saw Chloé Zhao become the first woman of colour to win, only one woman had ever claimed the prize).
CODA, a film about a deaf family with just one hearing member, won all three categories it was nominated in and took home the best picture accolade. Actor Troy Kotsur was awarded the Oscar for best actor in a supporting role for his performance, making him the first deaf man to win an Academy Award.
Ariana DeBose also made history as the first openly queer woman of colour to win an Oscar for her supporting role in the West Side Story remake.
While Dr Young said there has been some progress in diversifying Hollywood, mainly in terms of the voting members in the Academy and the people winning awards, “it’s still really clear that there is structural racism right throughout popular culture”.
“It’s quite noticeable in the Academy because people pay a lot of attention to the Oscars, but it’s not just the Oscars, it’s not just the Academy, it’s not just Hollywood, these are much broader problems,” she says.
The ongoing failings can be seen in the decision not to broadcast this year’s Golden Globes, another film and television award show organised by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (HFPA), following criticism about the lack of diversity in the organisation’s ranks and among the nominees.
An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in 2021 revealed there were no black people among the 87 foreign entertainment journalists that make up HFPA. The controversy overshadowed the ceremony that year and prompted intense scrutiny over who was receiving nominations.
An ensuing boycott of the event led NBC to drop the awards from its broadcast schedule, despite pledges from within the organisation to grow its membership with a focus on diversity and inclusion. The 2022 winners were instead announced via social media, with no red carpet or stars in attendance.
With award shows like the Golden Globes, which hopes to resume broadcasting next year, and the Academy Awards scrambling to find new relevance and fresh audiences — this year’s Oscars live broadcast was meant to be shortened in an attempt to turn around slumping ratings — it remains to be seen whether the slap will serve as a further wake-up call.
“A lot of the responses I’m seeing come from the industry and from the Academy are focusing on punishing Will Smith,” Dr Young said.
“Thinking about this incident as an isolated, one-off thing that everyone saw is taking it out of context. And taking something like this out of context is often what leads to responses that are really problematic and don’t address what the underlying issue is.”
Since the #OscarsSoWhite rallying cry, the Academy has made attempts to diversify its membership. In 2020, they announced films hoping to qualify for the best picture category will soon have to meet certain diversity standards, in front of and behind the camera.
The rules layout percentages or numbers of actors and staff on a movie that must be filled by people of colour, women, people with disabilities or people from the LGBTQI community to be considered.
The academy’s president David Rubin and chief executive Dawn Hudson said the changes, set to come into force from 2024, would be a “catalyst for long-lasting, essential change in our industry”.
But those standards will do little when it comes to conduct during the award show itself, especially given Hollywood’s propensity for hiring so-called edgy comedians to host.
“There’s a long history of there not being consequences for bullying, for negative commentary,” Dr Young said.
“If you want to say ‘violence is never the answer’ that has to be accompanied by, ‘well, what is the answer?’ and people with power to act in some other way actually acting.”