The reasons that anyone lashes out at another human being are complicated and often are only vaguely connected to the precipitating event, which in this case was Rock’s mean-spirited joke about Jada Pinkett Smith. The actor seemed to acknowledge the complexity of his emotions when he offered the first of two mea culpas. The first, only minutes after the assault when he accepted the Oscar for best actor, was a tearful and excuse-laden ramble in which he cast himself as a flawed guardian angel who was simply trying to do the work that God had chosen him to do.
“Love will make you do crazy things,” Smith said during his speech Sunday night, which really isn’t true. Love may make a person yell a rebuke to an insulting comic. It might make you consider all sorts of irrational acts. But love doesn’t force you to behave like a violent clod and then wait a day before you publicly apologize to the person that you actually clobbered.
In the immediate aftermath of the violence, the Oscars audience applauded. Smith partied. And many of his fans defended him.
Yet Smith was really nothing more than the gussied-up equivalent of a street corner punk who throws punches because someone disrespected his girlfriend or sullied his sneakers or just looked at him the wrong way. That guy’s emotions are complicated, too. The violence is about more than that pivotal moment. To paraphrase fellow nominee Denzel Washington, who tried to calm an overwrought Smith, the devil doesn’t just come for a person during their highest moment, the devil is always lurking.
The culture has little patience for the damaged thug in a T-shirt and jeans who’s lucky if his power extends the length of a neighborhood block, but it has the stamina to dissect the psychic pain of a mogul in a made-to-measure Dolce & Gabbana tuxedo. It has the wherewithal to pause and consider the complexity of a powerful Black man who says that he was protecting his powerful Black wife, when society too often doesn’t have the patience to deal with anonymous Black folks just trying to get by.
Make no mistake, money and fame are not antidotes to despair. But there are privileges associated with both. Society is quick to shun, stigmatize and belittle the blue-collar street fighter. The local cops tag him as a troublemaker. Maybe his job gets wind of his behavior and finds a reason to send him packing. At minimum, he’s dubbed a bully.
White-collar thugs, the ones who do physical harm with their duplicitousness and greed, mostly receive a slap on the wrist.
So what’s the punishment for assault while wearing a designer tux? What are the repercussions for slapping another human while in possession of financial success, social status and cultural clout? What is the just response for endangering the well-being of another person while laying claim to a coveted spot on the A-list? The Board of Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is mulling what actions it might take, which could range from inaction to recalling Smith’s Oscar.
A lot of history was made at the 94th annual Academy Awards. “Coda” actor Troy Kotsur became the first deaf male actor to win an Oscar. Ariana DeBose was the first openly gay actress of color and the first Afro-Latina performer to win an acting award. Questlove’s Oscar-winning “Summer of Soul” documented a historical celebration of music in Harlem. And Smith’s actor win for “King Richard” was notable in that he’s only the fifth Black man so honored. But mostly, it was a night that will be remembered as the one in which Smith was prepared to turn the Oscars stage into the setting of a brawl because of a glancing blow of disrespect.
The violence began in the aftermath of Rock joking that Pinkett Smith’s buzz cut was for a sequel to “G.I. Jane.” Those who follow Pinkett Smith on social media or who keep close tabs on her public statements were mostly likely aware that her shaved head was due to alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss. Others outside of her confessional loop may simply have presumed that she’d made a style choice.
When the camera turned to capture her reaction as she sat in the audience, her gaze was fixed on Rock, the high collar of her emerald evening gown framing her face with its high cheekbones and elegantly arched brows. Extravagant earrings were juxtaposed with her shaved scalp. She looked magnificent. She also looked displeased.
She rolled her eyes in response to Rock’s leaden comment. She may well have been the only person in the audience who did not feel beholden to the circumstances of the evening. She was not a hostage to the glamour and the grandeur and the frippery. She didn’t laugh or smile politely. She sat in that rarefied Hollywood air and let her feelings breathe, just a little.
Her husband choked. But first he laughed. Perhaps he thought the joke was funny. Perhaps he laughed because that’s an actor’s instinct when the TV cameras are pointed at you and you’re spit-shined for glory and the odds are in your favor to go home with a big career-affirming trophy. But then Smith stopped smiling. And instead of turning his attention to his wife, he puffed himself up.
He made the lengthy walk to the stage, hit Rock across the face, strode back to his seat and shouted expletives at the stunned comedian.
Smith was not escorted from the building. He wasn’t reprimanded from the stage by anyone from the academy. Instead, he was celebrated in a haze of pomp and glitter. His power remains intact. And thanks to Smith, disrespect flourishes all the more.