The Way It Was: The slap that stunned the world


This year’s Oscar presentation night on Sunday (27 March) was overshadowed by a slap! The glamour, the winners, the speeches and tears were all outdone by the resounding sound of a slap. By whom, to whom? By the VIPs of the night: the master of ceremonies – African American comedian  Chris Rock received not just one slap but two right on stage in front of the entire audience and millions of TV viewers. The man who slapped was adjudged the Best Male Actor and carried away the most prestigious Academy Award – actor Will Smith who played the role of Serena and Venus Williams’ father Richard Williams in the film King Richard.

Before the awards, comedian Chris Rock as introduction to the evening referred to persons in the vast audience gathered after a lapse of one or two years due to the pandemic. Addressing the wife of Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith, he said, “Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it” referring to the 1997 film G.I. Jane in which Demi Moore played the lead role with a severe buzzcut. 

Jada Smith’s very short haircut is due to a medical condition she suffers from – alopecia – that causes loss of hair. She laughed and took it lightly. Not her husband. He shot out of his seat, walked fast to the stage and slapped Rock twice. That stunned not only the compere but the entire audience and all viewers worldwide.  Watching the show on BBC I thought it was all stage managed and Will Smith pretended to slap Rock. But it was a real burst of uncontrollable anger and Smith did slap Rock. The victim however recovered fast and joked: “That was the greatest night in the history of television.” But Smith’s rage continued. Back in his seat he shouted out: “Keep my wife’s name out of your **** mouth.”

Soon after Will Smith won the Oscar for best actor; his first Academy Award, his acceptance speech was longer and with tears flowing down his face he apologised to the Academy and admitted he was “out of line”. He apologised to the Williams family too (the two tennis stars were up front in the audience) since his Oscar was for playing the role of Richard Williams. “I deeply regret that my behaviour has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us.”  But he did not apologise to Rock.  

Subsequently, the Oscar Film Academy condemned Smith over the incident and announced a formal review. He then apologised to Rock over Instagram: “I would like to publicly apologise to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong.”

In a letter of apology his media team carefully worded, he wrote: “Violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive. My behaviour at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. Jokes at my expense are a part of the job, but a joke about Jada’s medical condition was too much for me to bear and I reacted emotionally.”

`The matter is not ending here. The Academy met and produced a very long investigative  report. The worst punishment to Will Smith would be to remove him from membership of the Academy. But that, many protested, is too severe a punishment. After all the accused was defending his wife from being ridiculed, though harmlessly.

    A second severe punishment would be to revoke his Oscar for rude and unlawful behaviour. But here too leniency may be shown. Rock did not report the attack to the LA Police.

The opinion on Will Smith – disapproval as against Okaying what he did with the excuse he got angered on behalf of his wife who he thought was being insulted, seems balanced.  My opinion is he was wrong. He may excuse himself and all that, but he seems to have taken a leaf off the man he portrayed on film in winning an Oscar – the father of the two famous tennis players who by all accounts was tyrannical. He decided that his two daughters, then just past being little kids, would be tennis champs and he went ruthlessly after his goal, making it theirs too. 

Some of it rubbed off Serena Williams who was disgraceful as she pitched into the umpire at the US Open two years ago and completely upset very young Osaka. Turning violent under any circumstance is not tenable. So Will Smith gets most of the blame and Rock emerges unscathed since he did not say anything damaging or outrageous; he merely ad-libbed what he thought was a funny aside.