Behind the scenes

Will Smith and Chris Rock’s history: what led to the Oscars slap?

Exploring the possible factors behind Sunday night’s gasp-inducing event

History was made at last night’s Oscars: barrier-breaking film Coda won best picture, West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer actor of colour to take home a gong and the Academy Awards honoured a female director for the second year in a row.

However, the entire evening was overshadowed by one instantaneously viral moment – Will Smith slapping award-presenter Chris Rock on stage following a joke the comedian made at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. 

Go ‘way back’

Rock and the Smiths go “way back”, said Natalie Finn on Entertainment Weekly. The stand-up comedian had a guest spot on season six of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1995 and starred in three Madagascar films alongside Pinkett Smith. The trio made appearances at numerous awards ceremonies and other star-studded events together in the past, without any (public) issues.

But it’s likely the relationship soured six years ago, when Rock poked fun at Pinkett Smith during his monologue at the 2016 Academy Awards – also known as the year of “#OscarsSoWhite”. 

Pinkett Smith had announced that she was sitting out the ceremony, expressing her “deep disappointment” at the lack of diversity in that year’s list of nominees. But in Rock’s speech, he snarkily asked “isn’t she on a TV show?” before comparing her boycott of the Oscars to being like him “boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”

When asked to respond to Rock’s dig, Pinkett Smith told reporters that such comments “[come] with the territory”, but it didn’t sound like she’d seen the funny side. “We got a lot of stuff we gotta handle, a lot of stuff going on in our world right now,” she continued. “We gotta keep it moving.”

Sensitive subject

To the average viewer, the joke that preceded last night’s slap was childish but relatively lighthearted – “Jada, I love you,” Rock told Pinkett Smith, before adding: “GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it!”

But Pinkett Smith’s stern response to Rock’s dig at her buzzcut suggested he had touched on a sensitive subject. Last December, the Matrix actor revealed on Instagram that she’d decided to shave her head due to struggles with alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that leads to hair loss. According to the BBC, the condition affects one-third of women of African descent.

“Mama’s gonna have to take it down to the scalp so nobody thinks she got brain surgery or something,” she told her 11 million followers. “Me and this alopecia are going to be friends… period!” 

When Smith stormed the stage to slap Rock in the face, he yelled “Keep my wife’s name out of your f***ing mouth!”, to which Rock responded: “Wow, dude, it was a GI Jane joke”.

Personal history 

Along with Rock’s form for making digs at Pinkett Smith and the sensitive subject he touched upon, Smith’s personal history could also have contributed to his violent outburst, claimed Catherine Shoard in The Guardian.

The actor “has written publicly about his need to compensate for a childhood marred by domestic violence”, she said. In his autobiography, published last year, he wrote about witnessing his father physically assault his mother including one time when he was nine years old and saw his mother “spit blood”.

"Within everything that I have done since then – the awards and accolades, the spotlights and attention, the characters and the laughs – there has been a subtle string of apologies to my mother for my inaction that day,” he wrote. “For failing her in the moment. For failing to stand up to my father. For being a coward.”

Understanding the trauma Smith experienced as a child helps explain “why the actor would have felt the insult was too hard to shake off”, said Shoard. Last night, he apologised to the Academy and his fellow nominees as he accepted the best actor award, but did not mention Rock.

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