Will Smith: The Slap Heard Round the World

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Photos by Getty Images

Bill Simons

Comedian Amy Schumer joked, “Did I miss something?”

Well, yes, you did.

Some called it the craziest night on live TV. Others said it was “the slap heard ‘round the world.” On a night crowded with snarky punch lines, Will Smith was offended by a tasteless, mean-spirited jab by comedian Chris Rock at his wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who has been diagnosed with alopecia, which causes hair loss. Rock’s GI: Jane 2 joke referenced Jada’s shaved head and the hairstyle Demi Moore sported in the 1997 blockbuster.

After the joke Smith bolted from his front-row seat and smacked the comic in the face.

The glitziest celebrities on the planet and a worldwide audience of 15.4 million gasped. Was that for real, or just Hollywood doing its thing? 

But the stunned Rock, 57, said, “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.”

The livid Smith promptly countered, “Keep my wife’s name out of your f–king mouth!”

“It was just a GI Jane joke,” said Rock defensively.

Smith again snapped: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f–king mouth!” 

Never mind that earlier in the evening, “King Richard” cast member Sanyya Sidney, 15, had described the much beloved Smith as “the biggest kid you will ever see and so funny and so kind and he will treat you like family.”

And never mind that this was supposed to be a night of triumph for Smith, who’d won four Best Actor prizes at warm-ups for the Oscars. Plus, in some ways, this was one of the more uplifting nights in tennis history – a night to celebrate all things Williams that would span the globe.

Serena once said, “You can’t really beat winning an Oscar. You can always win Wimbledon.” Serena and Venus opened the show by introducing Beyoncé, who sang an elaborate version of her song, “Be Alive” that featured a visual shout-out to Martin Luther King, Jr. and was performed from the Williams’ once hardscrabble home court in Compton. 

“King Richard” had gained six Oscar nominations, by far the most in the modest history of tennis movies. Midway through the show there was an elaborate, farcical and not-so-funny skit about the Williams family, who watched from their own box. The movie failed to gain one Oscar after another. Still, insiders were quite certain Smith would collect the Best Actor Oscar.

But en route to his expected victory, Smith collected the world’s attention. After he’d smacked Rock, who dissed Smith and his wife at the 2016 Oscars, the Dolby theater went silent. Serena’s jaw dropped. The stunned star had to put down her drink and sit down while the confused twittersphere blew up. What had just happened? 

The Williams family has a long history of tumultuous happenings. Richard grew up amid racist Jim Crow violence in Louisiana. There were many fights. Then there were local bullies and gunshots to deal with at Compton’s courts. Controversy is woven into the fabric of Serena’s and Venus’ careers, including many snubs. A Romanian player bumped Venus during a changeover. A California stadium howled at 19-year-old Serena and her family for two hours. Serena went off big-time on a US Open lineswoman in 2915, and her 2018 meltdown during the US Open final against Naomi Osaka stunned the tennis world like few other encounters in the history of sports.

Now the actor who had so brilliantly played a visionary patriarch had shocked the lovely ladies in their gowns, viewers everywhere and deep-think observers alike. 

“The bottom line,” some claimed, “is that there’s just too much violence in this world.” After all, a madman has been using his tanks and flame-throwers to attack the hospitals and schools of a neighbor nation. Our films and video games are filled with violence. And even the sport of tennis – supposedly such a civil game – has been infected by a spate of violent incidents: Djokovic was kicked out of the US Open and then, just ten months later, twice flung his racket at the Olympics; Alexander Zverev bashed the umpire’s stand four times in Mexico and verbally accosted him; Nick Krygios’ racket almost struck a ball kid at Indian Wells; and even the young, benign Jenson Brooksby flipped his racket and hit a ball boy in Miami.

What’s going on? Some might suggest that Smith, who portrays a tough, pushy but oh-so-loving dad, was doing what men should do: he was protecting his wife who has very publicly struggled with alopecia, which causes hair loss. But most contended that his response was an unacceptable overreaction: the wrong thing to do, in the wrong place, at the wrong time. All Will had to do, said one commentator, was “ignore that guy’s nasty slight, go up, bask in all your glory and share your message of how great was the goodness of the Williams powerful clan.”

In his long, awkward and teary six-minute acceptance speech, Smith thanked the Williams family for entrusting him with their story. He offered many wonderful words and sentiments about responsibility and love. 

But his speech felt strange. It was oddly disassociated from what we’d all just seen: a violent act. Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees – but not to Rock, who later chose not to file charges. Smith shared that actor Denzel Washington had just told him, “Be careful: at your highest moments, that’s when the devil comes for you.” Now the Academy is launching an investigation. 

In his speech Smith seemed to justify himself by saying he was a protector: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” He added that while making this film he had to protect the movie’s cast and crew. He said, “I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people. He viewed himself as a victim: “I know, to do what we do, you have to take abuse, to have people talk crazy about you, and you’ve got to smile and pretend that’s okay. 

“I want to be a vessel for love. I want to be an ambassador for that kind of love and care and concern.” And to be able to shine light on the entire cast and the Williamses.

“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”

Richard Williams once told Inside Tennis, “This is a crazy goddamn world.” And tonight we again saw just how right he was.

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