At last night’s Academy Awards, we saw a man destroy the “good guy” image he’d spent decades curating.
The story goes like this: Chris Rock was presenting the Oscar for Best Documentary. As with most presenters, he delivered a little monologue before presenting. Usually, these monologues are not written by the presenters (even when they are comedians). Rock said of Jada Pinkett-Smith, who was sporting a bald head at the event due to alopecia, “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, Can’t wait to see ya.” The implication of the comment was that she’d shaved her head for a role in a sequel to the 1997 movie.
Apparently offended by the comment, Will Smith, Jada’s husband, walked onto the stage and physically assaulted Rock in front of millions by slapping him across the face and yelled, “Keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth!” as he took his seat.
A clearly startled Rock responded, “Wow, dude, it was a G.I. Jane joke,” to which Smith replied once again, “Keep my wife’s name out your f—ing mouth!”
Ever the professional, Rock replied “I’m going to, okay?” Then, addressing the shocked and silent audience, “That was the greatest night in the history of television” and he went on to present the award. In fact, some are praising Rock’s response to the assault and calling him out as the better man.
Personally, I agree.
Not a Funny Joke, But Still …
Now, to be clear, it wasn’t a funny joke on its own as it referenced a decades-old movie that most younger viewers likely have never heard of and, even if they had, it was rather bland humor. I’d also add that it was crummy comment considering Pinkett-Smith’s recent revelation that she suffers from alopecia. And, illness or not, the man behind the brilliant documentary Good Hair should have known better than to make a joke about a Black woman’s hair.
That said- it was just a bad joke at the Oscar’s. The show is full of bad jokes at the celebrities’ expense – that’s the whole point of the hosts’ and presenter’s monologues – to mock the uber-rich as they bask in their own glory. Plus, this was was a business event—can you imagine standing up at a business event and assaulting a colleague in front of the entire industry?! It simply was a massive overreaction and a violent one at that.
Of course, Smith went on to win the (much deserved) Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard – a win that will now forever be marred by his violent tantrum just moments earlier. In his acceptance speech, he tearfully apologized to the Academy and the audience (though notably not to Chris Rock) then went on to say that he was protecting his wife and (unironically) said he is “a vessel of love and peace.”
The PR Perspective
Breaking this down, I have to say – from a PR perspective – this was an insane move from Smith. For the record, I’ve been a fan since he was the Fresh Prince. I thought he should have received the Oscar for The Pursuit of Happyness and I was so happy to see his win for King Richard. My husband and I are also big fans of Smith’s show Welcome to Earth.
But, this is a man who has spent decades fostering a carefully crafted image as the “nice, goofy guy” and he just damaged that persona in an instant. I’d also add that African-American men, in particular, are forever combatting an assumption of violence and aggression and often must over-compensate with calm to assuage the fear society has historically had of them. Smith’s behavior only reinforced that negative stereotype.
Another consideration is this was the first time in the history of the Academy Awards when the show was produced entirely by an African-American team. So, this kind of behavior – under that circumstance – only serves up more hurdles for a community that already faces daily battles against the “angry black person” image. I really think Smith’s actions caused much more damage than good.
Some have cheered Smith’s behavior and echoed his statement that he was “protecting his wife.” But, protecting her from a joke – not even a funny joke – that few would have remembered?
Smith’s own son tweeted “And, That’s How We Do It” in support of his father’s violent outburst.
From a PR perspective, this behavior revealed Smith to be an immature bully – something I would never have believed until now, And it’s odd to claim that violence is the best way to handle being offended. In fact, using the “Kayne defense” that he has to “protect his family” only made the moment even more surreal and more than a bit misogynistic.
One has to ask, would Smith’s defenders have the same reaction if Oscar host Amy Schumer was assigned that joke and Smith smacked her across the face? If that would be unacceptable, why is it okay to hit Chris Rock?
It should come as no surprise to any PR pro that according to The Hollywood Reporter, Smith was spotted consulting with his PR rep during a commercial break after the assault. And, Ramin Setoodeh, the executive editor of Variety confirmed that Will Smith’s publicist came over and talked to him at the last commercial.
Reports indicate that Smith went on to celebrate his Oscar win at the after parties like nothing happened. Perhaps this won’t tarnish his reputation, but at the very least, his win will be forever tied to his tantrum and headlines will likely question his mental health over the next several days.