The Slap is sure to figure into the Oscars this year, even if the academy would prefer we all move on from the shocking moment on March 27, 2022, when Will Smith slapped Chris Rock onstage. The organization has said tonight’s telecast will not dwell on the episode. Then again, it has set up a crisis team to deal with any unexpected developments at the ceremony, proof that the incident continues to cast a long shadow. It will inform what you will — and won’t — see at the Dolby Theater tonight.
The encounter itself unfolded quickly: Rock, on hand to present best documentary, fired off a series of jokes targeting stars in attendance. After he made a crack about Jada Pinkett Smith’s close-cropped hair, her husband, Will Smith, left his seat in the audience, walked onstage and struck Rock. After sitting down again, Smith yelled at Rock to keep Pinkett Smith’s name out of his mouth. Rock said he would, then quipped, “That was the greatest night in the history of television.”
He was clearly stunned and the incident has reverberated in the months since. Here’s a look at the fallout:
Will Smith: The star, who went on to win the best actor Academy Award that night for “King Richard,” was banned from the Oscars ceremony for 10 years (though he is still eligible to win awards). Tradition calls for the previous year’s acting winners to present statuettes this year, but he won’t be onstage tonight.
The ban was imposed after Smith resigned from the academy and issued an apology on social media. He followed that up with a much longer apology a few months later on YouTube aimed at Rock, Rock’s family, Smith’s family and Questlove, who won the documentary prize but was overshadowed by what had just transpired. As for a direct conversation between Smith and Rock, the actor noted he had been told the comedian wasn’t ready to talk.
The academy is not Hollywood, and in the industry Smith’s career continues to roll on. In January, it was announced that he was reteaming with Martin Lawrence on another sequel in the “Bad Boys” franchise.
Chris Rock: In the aftermath of the incident, the comedian said little. At a standup show a few days later, he told a sold-out crowd, “I’m still kind of processing what happened.” Fast-forward nearly a year and Rock was clearly ready to talk on his livestreamed Netflix special Saturday night. Rock laid into Smith, criticizing him for picking on someone much smaller — “Will Smith is significantly bigger than me. We are not the same size. Will Smith does movies with his shirt off. You’ve never seen me do a movie with my shirt off” — and relishing any takedown of Smith: “Now I watch ‘Emancipation,’ just to see him get whupped,” Rock joked. (For a fascinating perspective also delivered via standup comedy, try Marlon Wayans’s new HBO Max special, which is all about the Slap from the point of view of an artist who has known the Smiths and Rock for decades.)
Jada Pinkett Smith: The actress rolled her eyes when Rock spoke about her hair, and part of the controversy has focused on the insensitivity of the line given that she has alopecia, a condition involving hair loss. She has made a few comments over the past several months on social media but did not address the joke itself. (In his apology video, Will Smith took care to point out that Pinkett Smith had nothing to do with his decision to hit Rock.) Mainly the actress’s focus was on healing between the two men. On “Red Table Talk,” her Facebook Watch show, she said, “My deepest hope is that these two intelligent, capable men have the opportunity to heal, talk this out and reconcile.”
The academy: Heavily criticized for doing little that night (officials asked Smith to leave, apparently, and he refused), the organization has issued a few mea culpas for its response, most recently at the nominees’ luncheon last month. “It was inadequate,” said Janet Yang, the academy president. “We learned from this that the academy must be fully transparent and accountable in our actions, and particularly in times of crisis, we must act swiftly, compassionately and decisively.”
How do they plan to do better next time? A crisis team will be stationed at the ceremony, according to a Time magazine interview with the academy chief executive, Bill Kramer, who explained: “We have a whole crisis team, something we’ve never had before, and many plans in place. We’ve run many scenarios.”
“Emancipation”: This slave drama starring Will Smith was expected to be a strong Oscar contender this year — until the Slap greatly clouded its prospects. Though Smith could still have been nominated despite the ban, academy voters avoided that possibility when they omitted both the star and the film from the nominations.
Jimmy Kimmel: The academy C.E.O. said over the summer that the 2023 telecast would not address the Slap, even in joke form. (“We want to move forward and to have an Oscars that celebrates cinema.”) But the Oscars host, Jimmy Kimmel, doesn’t seem to have gotten the message. His commercial promoting the Oscars includes several references to Rock, a former host himself. And the spot, a spoof of “Top Gun: Maverick,” explains that ABC was intent on finding an M.C. “who’s unflappable — and unslappable.” Kimmel’s response: “I can’t get slapped, I cry a lot.”