Of memes and men: Finding — and losing — the humor in Will Smith's Oscars slap
Rarely have so many people had the same exact thought at the same exact time: "Wait, did Will Smith just smack the s--- out of Chris Rock?"
The memes immediately followed. Nicole Kidman aghast with a reference to her now-iconic AMC ad: "Somehow, chaos feels good in a place like this." Lupita Nyong'o being all of us. One of my favorites was just a slide of Will smacking Chris followed by a reaction shot of Regina Hall's Brenda from Scary Movie, another in a long line of Black lady memes used as shorthand for a universe of emotions. (This one being thoroughly "WTF?")
I was planning on sharing that one when I saw a comment that made me decide against it: "Wow. White people are really loving this moment." What was the joke? And at whose expense was it? Then the headlines started to flood in — as did the weigh-ins, the characteristically civil internet discourse, and the threat of think pieces like this one, hoping to figure out W-T-actual-F.
It all became too much for me. I didn't want to see how this would play out, how Will Smith would be vilified as a thug or a monster, how Jada Pinkett Smith's feelings, or those of her kids — hell, even those of Chris Rock — would be considered, if their feelings were considered at all.
On my gayest — and whitest — text chain, we had been following the ceremony closely. We loved the hosts, were divided over Chalamet's red carpet attire, cried over Liza and Ariana DeBose. But when the slap happened, things, much like the ceremony itself, took a turn: "What a f---ing lunatic." "Maniac." "What a weak-minded man."
It pushed me over the edge. While I don't condone violence in any form, and I can't defend Will Smith's actions, I can't judge him, either. Tiffany Haddish thought what Smith did was "beautiful"; as a Black woman "who has been unprotected," she was inspired to see Smith defending his wife. She saw something admirable in that...and I doubt she was the only one. Of course, some would argue that Smith's actions — and Haddish's approval of them — only perpetuates toxic masculinity, but I also think of that Malcolm X (via "Formation") quote about the "most disrespected person in America" being a Black woman.
Back on the chain I texted: "I can't really judge him."
One of my friends responded: "I am judging the s--- out of it."
This was what I feared would come of this: white people telling me how I should feel about this very complicated incident. And it was complicated, but all my friends could see was a man open-palm slapping another man on live TV. Which is, without context, funny. Or disturbing. Or both. We live in the most violent society in history, in the midst of a global conflict in which thousands of people, including children and pregnant women, have been killed, and when there are mass shootings on the daily. With all that, a slap in the face is a bridge too far?
But I'm a Black man in America, I don't exist without context. Sure, some found Will slapping Chris funny — it was certainly funnier than that G.I. Jane joke, which wouldn't have been fresh when that movie came out 25 years ago. But more than anything, I was embarrassed. Because it had to happen in front of all these damn white people. (I mean, is there a whiter person than Nicole Kidman?) Moreover, it was in front of a nation still grappling, mightily, with a past, present, and future of anti-Blackness. Will Smith's actions thus reflected on us, Black people, as if it's true what they (white people) think about us. How they see us. Look no further than the white celebrities calling for Smith's arrest, the same ones who looked the other way for years when it came to outrageous abuses of power within their own circles.
Will Smith is the fifth Black man to win Best Actor in the Oscar's 94 years. The first Black man, Sidney Poitier, kicked off the In Memoriam segment. It was like a passing of the torch. Sidney Poitier, who had to be everything to Black people, to Will Smith, who strived to be everything to everyone. The good-natured, family-friendly rapper ("Will Smith doesn't have to curse in his raps to sell records," Eminem once quipped, "But I do, so f--- him, and f--- you, too") turned sitcom star turned action star turned Oscar-winning actor. This should've been a triumphant night for him — and by extension, for Black people.
The sad truth is: When one of us wins, it's just one of us winning. But when one of us stumbles, we all stumble. That's the burden of being a Black icon. You shoulder the expectations, grand or otherwise, of your entire race. Poitier understood that all too well, and so does Will Smith.
Yet, there were the headlines about Smith, seemingly remorseless whilst getting jiggy wit' it at Oscar after parties. Meanwhile, that video of the slap, and photos from every available angle, were popping up on my newsfeed. I vowed long ago to avoid anything in the news where a Black person is harmed. I didn't need to see racial violence to know that racism existed — I am living in my own Black body, that is my reality, I'm good, thanks. While certainly not akin to a police shooting, I didn't want, nor did I need, to be reminded of that slap over and over again. The more I saw it or heard or read people's reactions to it, the more uncomfortable I became.
Oscar producer Will Packer tweeted that "Black people have a defiant spirit of laughter when it comes to dealing with pain because there has been so much of it," while also conceding that seeing Smith slap Rock "was a very painful moment for me." It was painful. I had grown up with both Chris Rock and Will Smith. I had pulled for Smith to win that Oscar because I remember him as that skinny kid with neon clothes and the sideways cap hurling his body through the air just to score a laugh as the Fresh Prince. I was used to laughing at him — and at Chris Rock. Sometimes it's easier to laugh because the alternative is so much worse and heartbreaking.
Rock, post-slap, would go on to present an emotional Questlove his first Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for the glorious Summer of Soul, a gem of a time capsule to an all-but-forgotten event that celebrated the soul and survival of Black people. And it was marred by one Black icon slapping another. And later, Smith would win his first Oscar for playing the man who helped shape two of the greatest athletes the world has ever seen, two Black women who became American heroes in spite of America. And it was marred by one Black icon slapping another.
I just can't find the humor in it anymore.