With Will Smith’s Slap, We Have Snapped Out of It

April 1, 2022

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I was determined to ignore the Academy Awards ceremony this year.

For years my wife and I carried on a tradition she had begun with her mother decades ago, hosting an Oscar party ranging in size from just the two of us to a gathering of 15-20. It would begin hours before the ceremony, as we flipped back and forth between the network’s official red-carpet ceremony and a couple of different celebrity commentary shows on cable channels. We consumed snacks and cocktails and stayed up too late on a night when we had to get up early the next day. Our guests enjoyed living vicariously through entertainment elites for one night, just for fun. “That dress!” “That guy’s so old now!” “Look at Brad and Angelina!” It was a simple acknowledgement that for decades, rightly or wrongly, movie stars really have been a class unto themselves in American culture.

And then, of course, there were the movies. As Ross Douthat has recently pointed out, there used to be an ideal American movie, all but guaranteed both to earn a fortune at the box office and take home an armful of Academy Awards—not too highbrow, but not too low either—full of attractive people set within a big spectacle and moved along by a memorable score. As Douthat notes, James Cameron’s 1998 Titanic (love it or hate it) may be the epitome of an Oscar movie.

But times have changed. In my own work as Fellow of Popular Culture, it has become increasingly clear to me that a truly “popular” culture as such is a thing of the past. (Be on the lookout for an essay I have written on the implications of its demise for evangelization in a forthcoming collection). 

Take this year’s Oscar nominees. Was I really expected to be excited that Steven Spielberg remade an already perfect—I mean perfect—movie musical, the 1961 West Side Story? Coda looks interesting, but I must admit, I had never heard of it before Sunday evening. Dune was excellent and Nightmare Alley was pretty good. But nothing too terribly exciting. The film industry, and the Academy that elevates movie stars to near divine status, has been treading water now for years, trying to reinvent itself and chasing the ever-shifting boundaries of social acceptability. In recent years, my family’s Oscar parties started eliciting more eye rolls and long sighs than oohs and aahs. So, we stopped having them.

But this week someone in our house happened to remember the show was on, and we all plopped down on the couch and joined in late. There were no snacks or cocktails. When my favorite movie of 2021, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Hand of God, did not win the award for Best International Feature Film, what little interest I had faded considerably. When a comedienne I barely recognized was dangling from the ceiling dressed like Spider-Man, I decided to turn in. 

But to my surprise, my wife came to bed a couple of hours later, spinning a yarn about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock. I asked groggily, “What?! Am I awake or am I having a weird dream?”

The debate will no doubt rage on about whether Rock’s ribbing of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who lives with an autoimmune condition called alopecia, went beyond the normal boundaries of comedic roasting. But there is no doubt that Smith’s violent reaction will go down as one of the most bizarre moments of the Academy Awards. Just as the show seemed on the brink of passing into total cultural irrelevance, Smith’s action brought it smack into the middle of the violence and privilege that lately permeates our awareness. His assault on Rock emphasized what the Oscars have come to model—namely, the most toxic kind of elitism. Where we used to tune in for mostly harmless, fairy-tale glitz and glam, now we see more of the same decadence we witness along the societal food chain every day. The people at the top simply operate by different rules. Celebrities can get away with behavior for which the rest of us would suffer serious consequences.

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Whatever need Smith may have felt to defend his wife’s honor, and whatever mental state he may be in from a lot of well-publicized family turmoil, the fact is, it’s not normal for a 53 year-old man to slap someone in public. Smith wasn’t escorted out of the building or even visited by security. On the contrary he was permitted to stay and pick up his award, and to then hold the floor, uninterrupted.

And to that very broad, saddening analysis of “the slap,” I only want to add a few thoughts:  

First, the Smith/Rock confrontation will have legs; its notoriety will likely surpass the 1973 show, where Marlon Brando sent the Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather (born Marie Louise Cruz) to the stage to decline the Best Actor award for The Godfather. It will surpass the 1974 show, when a streaker ran behind a fast-witted David Niven (who remarked, “Isn’t it fascinating to think that probably the only laugh that man will ever get in his life is by stripping off and showing his shortcomings?”), as well as Angelina Jolie gushing about being in love with her brother (2000) and Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway announcing the wrong winner for Best Picture (2017). 

Secondly, as a Christian who writes often about the entertainment industry and its effect on popular culture, I cannot fail to mention the involvement of Denzel Washington, a professing Christian, who reportedly told Smith in the aftermath of the melee, “At your highest moment, be careful—that’s when the devil comes for you.” But then Smith won the Best Actor trophy for his performance in King Richard, and he proceeded to use his speech to defend himself by praising the man he portrayed on screen. “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said. Smith then seemed to spiritualize his actions as tears began to flow from his eyes, emoting, “I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” He then offered apologies “to the Academy . . . all my fellow nominees,” but none to Rock, who, despite having perhaps crossed a line of comedic decency, had quite literally turned the other cheek to his attacker.

Where, I wonder, did Smith think Washington was telling him the devil was prowling? In Chris Rock’s house, or in his own? Perhaps, sadly, the Enemy and his allies were simply all over the theater that night, continuing to run rampant through an industry in which, sadly, big movie fans like my wife and I have little remaining confidence. Pope Pius XII noted in 1955, “The millions of people who flock to the cinema are driven there by a vague hope of finding the contentment of their secret and undefined desires.” 

Until the day I die, I will never stop watching movies. But I sure do tire of being disappointed in the people involved with them. But perhaps that is on me, not them, for ever having expected more from them, for no other reason than I wished it.

Perhaps the Hollywood illusions have run their course and the “movie star class” should be cast down once and for all. For the sake of nostalgia, this makes me sad. We always knew famous actors and actresses were a decadent lot; but they mostly played their parts—even offset—and let us use them as projections of our own expectations, and satisfiers of our own out-of-reach dreams. But now I find myself agreeing with my friend and colleague Jason Paone, who recently noted,

The regal aesthetics of American TV award ceremonies seem a bit absurd. Celebrities aren’t aristocrats. Not a very cultivated bunch (“well-adapted adults” might even be a stretch). Not that rich. Whose idea was it to have them ape European nobility for an evening?

Perhaps Will Smith’s slap really hit long-suffering fans of cinema hardest of all. But after years of declining ratings, the producers of the Academy Awards broadcast are surely now imagining a much brighter future. If we don’t tune in next year, who knows what we could miss?