Many wondered what the changes to this year’s Oscars would look like, but Sunday’s ceremony brought a completely unrelated surprise: Best actor winner Will Smith walked onstage and slapped presenter Chris Rock across the face after Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head.
The moment shocked audience members – both at home and in attendance at Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre – and went on to dominate online discourse after the ceremony’s end. Reactions were split between those supporting Smith’s extreme defense of his wife (to varying extents), those condemning his behavior and the rest not knowing how to respond to it at all.
Smith and Pinkett Smith’s son, Jaden, tweeted after the show, “And That’s How We Do It.”
The official account for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences stated on Twitter that the organization “does not condone violence of any form.”
About 40 minutes before Smith accepted his best actor Oscar for “King Richard,” Rock arrived onstage to present best documentary feature. He joked about people in the audience, saying to Pinkett Smith, “Jada, I love you. ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it.” Pinkett Smith, who has spoken publicly about her alopecia diagnosis, did not look amused by the comment.
Within moments, Smith made his way onto the stage and slapped Rock. ABC cut the audio for roughly 15 seconds, though some international broadcasts captured the interaction.
As Smith returned to his seat, Rock remarked that Smith “just smacked the s— out of me.” Now back in his seat, Smith yelled at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth.”
Smith began his acceptance speech by saying that Richard Williams, father to tennis champions Venus and Serena, was a “fierce defender of his family.” But Smith then noted that Denzel Washington warned him after the slap to be careful because “at your highest moment . . . that’s when the devil comes for you,” and apologized to the academy and fellow nominees for his behavior. (However, it should be noted that Smith did not apologize to Rock.)
After the incident, some viewers were reminded of a joke Rock made while hosting the Oscars in 2016, when the Smiths were among those boycotting the ceremony amid the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. “Jada got mad. She’s not coming,” Rock riffed during his monologue. “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
That wasn’t the only joke he told at the couple’s expense that night. Referencing Pinkett Smith’s dismay that her husband was not nominated for the movie “Concussion,” Rock said, “I get it . . . it’s not fair that Will was this good and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West.’ ” Smith was silent when TMZ asked him about that jab at the time, but one widely shared theory posits that Sunday’s confrontation had been building since 2016.
The slap was the topic du jour (at least among celebrities being interviewed) at the Vanity Fair after-party. According to E!, John Legend declared it “a no-comment type of night.” Two-time Oscar nominee Leslie Odom pointed out that Smith was in a vulnerable position.
“This business can sometimes feel like walking around with your skin ripped off,” Odom told Vanity Fair. “I think we saw two artists, you know, with their hearts open. It’s a vulnerable moment – sometimes it’s messy, but it’s always beautiful when it’s the truth.”
Some people defended the emotion behind Smith slapping Rock.
Writer Michael Harriot tweeted that the interaction “explained my position on microaggressions, white people saying the n-word and the entire concept of free speech.”
“Everyone should have the absolute right to say whatever they want,” he continued. “But you can’t then restrict people’s reactions to what you said.”
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass., reportedly posted (and quickly deleted) a defense of Smith.
“#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults,” wrote Pressley, who has spoken out in recent years about her experiences with the autoimmune disorder.
Bernice King, the youngest child of Martin Luther King Jr. and Coretta Scott King, made note of the various forms of harm at play: “I just think we really need to be more careful with each other,” she wrote. “We handle each other so violently . . . verbally, physically, psychologically.”
She referenced her father in a later tweet, adding that “there are more nuanced, multi-faceted conversations to be had than ‘Who was right or wrong?’ “
Actress Sophia Bush tweeted, “Violence isn’t ok. Assault is never the answer. Also? This is the 2nd time that Chris has made fun of Jada on the #Oscars stage, & tonight he went after her alopecia. Punching down at someone’s auto-immune disease is wrong. Doing so on purpose is cruel. They both need a breather.”
Others were unwilling to excuse – or attempt to understand – Smith’s actions.
“He could have killed him,” director Judd Apatow said in a since deleted tweet. “That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades.”
Comic Kathy Griffin tweeted that “it’s a very bad practice to walk up on stage and physically assault a Comedian. Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters.”
And finally, of course, there were jokes that basically wrote themselves.
“Chris Rock and Will Smith dropped the promo for the new season of everybody hates chris at the oscars tonight,” one viewer quipped.
“BREAKING: Will Smith Being Sent to Live with Aunt and Uncle in Bel-Air,” writer-director Zack Bornstein tweeted.
Conan O’Brien, whose show ended last year, joked, “Just saw the Will Smith slap. Anyone have a late night show I can borrow just for tomorrow?”
Perhaps best capturing the confusion surrounding it all were tweets from Cher, who wrote, “OH WHAT A NIGHT, IM SO SO SO HAPPY” – then had to clarify she was not referring to the slap.
She stated, “I Hadn’t Seen The Fight . . . I went To get a Dr Pepper.”