Will Smith Carefully Edited His Image For Years. It Has All Come Undone Now.
After decades of maintaining a wholesome image, Smith's decision to slap Chris Rock turned his Oscar glory into a controversial display of Black anger.
For whatever it’s worth, I think The Slap was unnecessary and wrong, and shouldn’t have happened. For a couple who has been in the public eye for 30 years, and who, in recent years at least, have been intentionally and strategically open about all kinds of vulnerable personal subjects, I’m befuddled by the Smiths’ response to Chris Rock’s joke. If you’ve seen one Academy Awards, you’ve seen them all, and the couple, both of whom have been famous for decades, and who have attended several Oscars before, surely knew what to expect at such a hypermediated event. Before this ceremony, hadn’t they laughed at jokes aimed at other celebrities, including those about people’s appearances?
I also know my personal thoughts on the morality of the slap aren’t actually all that relevant. Who cares? I’m already bored with my “take” on this.
What I do actually care about, and what does interest me, is this instance of public anger and its relationship to other incidents in American pop culture, particularly those involving Black men. I’m compelled by public spectacles of Black internecine conflict, particularly in predominantly white spaces, and the ways in which those spectacles are instantly racialized, the fact that they are charged by internal respectability politics, and the process by which they instantly become entertainment fodder.
I’m also from Philadelphia, where slapboxing and all kinds of public rituals of physical combat are common, especially among men and boys.
I attend Quaker meetings occasionally (as recently as this past Sunday morning), and the tenets of peace, nonviolence, and silent waiting are evergreen through lines. I believe in those values. I’m also from Philadelphia, where slapboxing and all kinds of public rituals of physical combat are common, especially among men and boys. I also have warring thoughts about what I actually want men to do for women in moments of public discomfort. I’ve been in arguments with men I’ve loved because they’d failed an expectation I had for them to speak up for me. But they were also uncomfortable, like many people are — like I am — at the prospect of escalating physical conflict. No one should resort to being violent with other people. I’ve also cringed, and then silently, and guiltily, assented to a friend’s description of himself as a “beta male” because he failed to stop a catcaller from approaching his girlfriend. I know it’s all fucked up, and certainly retrograde.
Because of my lifelong intimacy and familiarity with retaliatory violence, I have serious discomfort with the notion of women praising a man’s physical retaliation to a joke. I wonder, for my own sake, and for my affinity with other women, How can we expect that type of energy to not eventually come back on us? Plus, the responses to the joke that claim Smith was defending his wife’s honor in a room full of white Hollywood establishment figures still center white people. Why should anyone really be bothered with what white people think about an exchange between three Black people? The celebrity Oscar attendees actually have more in common with each other — wealth, privilege, influence — than with all of us watching at home.
On Sunday night, CBS Los Angeles reporter Jasmine Viel interviewed celebrity attendees of Elton John’s AIDS Foundation party about the slap. She said she ran into retired NBA star Metta World Peace, who declined to talk because he hadn’t seen the incident in full and wanted to reserve judgment until he’d done so. “He’s the guy who also knows when anger can get the best of you,” Viel said, hinting at World Peace’s infamous involvement in 2004’s “Malice at the Palace” brawl between fans and members of the Indiana Pacers and the Detroit Pistons in the latter’s basketball arena. After an on-court scuffle between the teams, a fan threw a cup of water at World Peace as he lay back on the scorer’s table. That led to an all-out melee between the basketball players and the fans, and, subsequently, player fines and suspensions, and a robust conversation about respectability in sports. Perhaps just as importantly, the story ensured ratings as talking heads spent an inordinate amount of time processing what happened on television. As Jonathan Abrams noted in his oral history of the event, “The media debated security, fan behavior, and the tenuous relationship between players and spectators for weeks.”
At the 2004 US Open, Serena Williams’ outraged response to four controversial blown calls ignited a media frenzy. (I saw that match live and I remember crying and yelling in my bedroom about how unfair the calls were. Watching now makes me just as angry as it did back then.) Subsequently, Williams’ argument with chair umpire Carlos Ramos at the 2018 US Open about the allegation that she was being coached during the match echoed that first meltdown.
Of course, there are also the public expressions of anger by Ye, the artist formerly known as Kanye West. His first instance on a national stage occurred during a telethon for Hurricane Katrina. “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he famously said, quietly seething. His viral interview moments and angry social media dispatches continue to generate controversy. A clip from an early season of America’s Next Top Model, in which Tyra Banks lost her temper and yelled at contestant, Tiffany Richardson, became a popular meme. In February 2014, Ray Rice pummeled his then-fiancé Janay in an elevator and was the subject of public scrutiny for weeks. Months later, in May 2014, after the Met Gala, Solange Knowles assaulted her brother-in-law, Jay-Z, in an elevator, and, yet again, a conversation about decorum and respectability dominated national discourse afterward. In each of these situations, Black anger, however temporarily deployed, went viral in its own time. They became hot topics in the mainstream press, tabloids, daytime talk shows, and clip show roundups. Public Black anger, however justified and accurate, from Malcolm X’s fiery speeches (right on), to Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver’s incendiary political commentary (ugh), to Ye’s extemporaneous social media screeds, is powerful; it sells newspapers, books, and whatever else is for sale, including America’s attention.
Public Black anger is powerful; it sells newspapers, books, and whatever else is for sale, including America’s attention.
Awards shows in particular have become spaces of anxiety about Black public anger. In the years before social media, awards shows were places for stars to reach millions of people all at one time. 1995’s Source Awards seems, by many accounts, to be the nadir of America’s awards show fears. In a hip-hop community wracked by the East Coast–West Coast rap wars, the Source Awards, which was organized by rap magazine The Source, offered little balm amid the rancor and mega conflicts of that era. At the 1995 Source Awards, warring camps dissed each other from the podium; Suge Knight famously called out Puff Daddy. The conflict threatened to escalate beyond the venue. Four years after his Hurricane Katrina comments, at the 2009 MTV VMAs, Ye notoriously crashed the stage and interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, and called out the hypocrisy of the music industry. In 2012, at the BET Awards, Ye nodded to his irascible tendencies at these kinds of events, saying, “I’m bad at losing, I’m bad at winning, I’m always saying the wrong thing. I wish Jay-Z was here to say something politically correct for me.” (Jay-Z surprised Ye onstage, and acted as a translator for his famously prickly friend and collaborator.) And now, after months of harassing his estranged ex-wife Kim Kardashian and her boyfriend, Pete Davidson, and making insulting comments to Grammys host Trevor Noah, Ye’s been disinvited from the ceremony due to “concerning online behavior.”
Ye’s VMA debacle also led to a rare moment when President Obama went off-script; he was recorded calling Ye a “jackass” for his onstage ambush — and immediately after saying that, asked whether recording devices had captured his off-the-cuff comment. Interestingly enough, the president’s Ye commentary eventually served as an example of a critique of Obama that he was only forcefully indignant when his harangue was aimed at other Black men. Consider his infamous 2008 Father’s Day speech, in which he called on Black men specifically to be better fathers, as another example. Although those moments reinforced his reputation for being preternaturally cool and composed, they called attention to his very strategic lack of anger, or anything resembling it, in public. Obama’s reputation for being level-headed at all times led to a series of viral Key & Peele skits about a guy named Luther, played by Keegan-Michael Key, who was Obama’s “anger translator.” (The anger translator joke was recycled in a memorable bit at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner.)
Fascinatingly, Will Smith has been, for a time, like the entertainment world’s Obama. The men have a long history of invoking each other in public; Smith has joked about missing his opportunity to be the first Black president, and Obama said that he wanted Smith to play him in a biopic. And now, after all this time, Smith, one of the most carefully crafted contemporary celebrities, has become the latest, and most famous, example of this discourse. His decision to slap Chris Rock turned what should have been his public coronation into Academy history into another meditation on Black anger.
But it is also, of course, more interesting than that.
It’s ironic that one of the eight categories that were cut from the Academy Awards live broadcast Sunday night was Best Editing, because the craft could teach so many of us about what transpired that evening. Soviet director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein famously articulated that the meaning and emotion of a film can be manipulated through editing. Editing is an exercise in managing information. According to Eisenstein, who pioneered a movement and approach to filmmaking called “montage theory,” the information is in the cut and in the relationship between sequential images. The thinking goes that one can learn more in a sequence than in a solo shot. The Academy Awards telecast, while not a film itself, is certainly organized according to these basic principles of selecting and presenting imagery.
Editing proves to be a helpful way to think about Sunday night’s events, not least of all because the telecast was so heavily edited during the incident, nor because Smith’s way of responding to his actions during his acceptance speech required some savvy editing or a marked deviation from the remarks he’d originally planned to deliver.
Editing proves to be a helpful way to think about Sunday night’s events, not least of all because the telecast was so heavily edited during the incident.
Part of the reason editing feels important as a way to think through this whole event is that much of what was interesting about the night happened offscreen, during commercial breaks, or in moments when the camera was trained elsewhere. For instance, someone who’d bartended the Oscars claimed that everyone stopped drinking after The Slap. Vulture writer Nate Jones shared a dispatch of what things were like in the theater, up in the rafters, including the displeasure the acceptance speech inspired throughout the venue, especially among people who felt that Smith was “doubling down” on his bad behavior. USA Today editor Anika Reed tweeted about the series of actors who angled to console the Smiths during commercial breaks. In one of the night’s more interesting untelevised sequences, Tyler Perry, Bradley Cooper, and Denzel Washington huddled around Smith during a commercial break, presumably offering counsel and support. Video footage and still images show the men talking amongst each other and Washington crouching near Pinkett Smith’s chair even after the show began again, which required the show’s director and camera people to avoid them. The Smiths apparently held hands after the incident. Entertainment journalists reported that Smith’s publicists crowded around him during the break in the lead-up to the Best Actor presentation.
In his acceptance speech, Smith compared himself to the man he portrayed. “Richard Williams was a defender of his family. In this time of my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” Talking through tears, he mused about protecting his King Richard costars and likened The Slap to an act of love. “I’m being called on in my life to love people, and to protect people, and to be a river to my people… In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you, and you gotta smile and you gotta pretend like that’s OK… Art imitates life. I look like the ‘crazy father,’ just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
For Smith, who had, on some level, been waiting his entire professional life to be heralded that evening, one has to imagine that his public relations people were helping him spin in preparation for the Best Actor win. But also, for Smith, who is very public about his own sense of relentless self-examination, the Oscars debacle provided a way for him to test his own hypervigilance, to edit himself in something close to real-time, an act aided by the ceremony's many breaks and cutaways.
In Fred Schepisi’s Six Degrees of Separation (1993), Smith plays Paul, a hustler who charms his way into the lives of a circle of Upper East Side socialites by pretending to be the son of Sidney Poitier. He insinuates himself into their monied world, dazzling the couple (Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland) with insider art knowledge about Wassily Kandinsky’s two-sided paintings, which are supposed to represent “chaos and control.” (The artist actually never made any paintings of this kind.) Smith’s character is based on the life and early ’80s scheme of David Hampton, a scammer who used Poitier's name to grift money from NYC upper-crust elites, including Osborn Elliott, the longtime editor of Newsweek.
In real life, Hampton chose to impersonate Poitier out of convenience; in the film, Smith's character picks him because he's the most refined Black actor he can think of. In the early 1990s, Smith, riding the wave of a successful rap career and a hit television show in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, was desperate to showcase his dramatic acting chops. The Paul Poitier role, for which he received rave reviews, opened him up to method acting and a new way of thinking of identity. As Smith wrote in his November memoir Will, “We realize that the characters we play in a film are no different than the characters we play in life. Will Smith is no more ‘real’ than Paul — they’re both characters that were invented, practiced, and performed, reinforced, and refined by friends, loved ones, and the external world. What you think of as your ‘self’ is a fragile construct.”
It seems that the vicissitudes of the contemporary entertainment business forced Smith to shift publicly.
In the film, Paul talks about how honorable, clean-cut, and almost boring his faux-dad Sidney Poitier is, explaining, "If I wanted to write a book about him, I really can't. No one would want to read it. He's decent, and I admire him." For a time, the sentiment in that quote would have certainly applied to Smith as well. By the early 2000s, Smith had become the contemporary version of Poitier, or as Channing's character Ouisa Kittredge described him, "the single greatest Black star in movies,” if not in sheer talent, then in popularity and public goodwill. After many years of being a fundamentally decent, wholesome, good-looking box office king, it seems that the vicissitudes of the contemporary entertainment business — aka a string of critically panned box-office disappointments — forced Smith to shift publicly into someone people want to read about now.
The influence of the internet and streaming TV made Smith more of an open book. In 2017, Smith joined Instagram and quickly became an influencer; he currently has over 60 million followers. His profile, where he posts stunts and family vacations, has gradually made the actor more interesting. Jada Pinkett Smith's popular Facebook show Red Table Talk, where she dishes with her mother and daughter on a bevy of social topics, has allowed the formerly private family to be a lot more candid — though on their own terms, of course. Most impactfully, there was the "entanglement" fiasco of 2019, when Pinkett Smith's former lover August Alsina revealed their relationship and the Smiths did a joint Red Table Talk interview to address the scandal. It permanently changed the way people perceived the previously tight-lipped couple.
Smith's memoir included his admission to wanting, at one time, a "harem" of 25 girlfriends including Halle Berry and Misty Copeland; his falling in love with Six Degrees of Separation costar Stockard Channing; and his jealousy of Tupac Shakur, Pinkett Smith’s childhood friend. “In the beginning of our relationship, my mind was tortured by their connection. He was ’PAC! and I was me,” Smith wrote. “He had a fearless passion that was intoxicating, a militant morality, and a willingness to fight and die for what he believed was right. ’Pac … triggered the perception of myself as a coward. I hated that I wasn’t what he was in the world, and I suffered a raging jealousy: I wanted Jada to look at me like that.”
Those revelations have now separated his image from that of the more discreet Black acting titans like Poitier, Denzel Washington, and Harry Belafonte, Black Hollywood’s dignified elder statesmen, who Smith had begun to share lofty company with. (In a move that should not surprise anyone, the Smiths will apparently unpack the Oscars incident on Red Table Talk.)
In December of last year, while promoting King Richard and his memoir, Smith told the New York Times about this shift in his image and hinted at the long-held ways he’d attempted to frame himself, even down to the way he used to walk eight years ago. “I’m trying to create a joyful persona, and it’s because a long time ago I realized how you enter a space is going to determine how the space reacts to you. So my walk is joyful, but it’s also somewhat performative and preemptive. It’s like, I don’t want somebody to feel like they have to punch me in my face. I want to walk into a room and get as many friends as quickly as possible.” Now, though, things have changed. “At this point in my life, I’m comfortable in my body. I’m OK with things not being perfect. I don’t have to look right. My mind isn’t drifting to what people are thinking when I walk in anymore. It’s much less performative and conscious.” Echoing that statement, he continued to differentiate himself then and now: “Strategizing about being the biggest movie star in the world — that is all completely over. I realized that in order to enjoy my time here and in order to be helpful, it’s much more about self-examination. I want to take roles where I get to look at myself, where I get to look at my family, I get to look at ideas that are important to me.”
On Sunday night, as he was delivering his Best Actor speech, Smith cried, and apparently accidentally spat onto the mic, which the camera didn’t pick up. “I just spit, I hope they didn’t see that on TV,” he said earnestly. The dissonance caused by his concern for how spittle would be perceived after he physically assaulted someone on international television is flabbergasting. In that speech, Will Smith’s own process of editing — or, to use a term he employed in his memoir, his act of refining — was laid bare.
Both the new penchant for self-examination and the old hyper-perception of himself walking into rooms feel evocative. Consider his rebrand as an Instagram influencer and the entanglement business. Think, too, of Smith’s open-hearted memoir, and his re-examination of himself as a “crazy dad” in the vein of Richard Williams. Also there’s the fact that Smith is an executive producer-shepherd of Bel-Air, Peacock’s bizarro world dramatic retelling of a familiar American sitcom, which might also, in a very oblique way, mirror the way Smith’s perception has changed from sunny, reliable entertainment stalwart to a somewhat darker and more complicated entity. Thinking through all of this, the incongruity between his responses to The Slap and his accidentally spitting on the mic is easier to understand. In that moment, delivering that speech, Will Smith was his own anger translator. In the apology statement he shared Monday night, Smith apologized to Chris Rock and condemned his actions. “I am a work in progress,” he wrote.
Twenty-nine years after his first “serious” role in Six Degrees of Separation, Smith was awarded the Academy Award for Best Actor, the highest prize in dramatic acting. At the Dolby Theatre, Smith was less than six degrees of separation from most people in the venue.
Many of the Black celebrities in attendance that night all had some relationship — some degree of separation — to notions of public anger and/or gendered experiences of violence. Sean “Diddy” Combs (who has recently rebranded himself as “Brother Love”) made it past the East Coast–West Coast beef and the 1995 Source Awards, where the intensity of public anger could have been its own category. He was also one of the first celebrities to comment on the assault at the Oscars, saying, as he presented a montage honoring The Godfather, "Will and Chris, we're gonna solve that like family at the Gold Party." Jay-Z, who sat in the orchestra seats, probably feet away from Smith and Rock, has previously been part of two public scandals involving violence. Rapper Megan Thee Stallion, who performed a remix of Encanto’s “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” at Sunday night’s Oscars, has alleged that she was shot by the rapper Tory Lanez and has led a campaign for people to “protect Black women.”
The dissonance caused by his concern for how spittle would be perceived after he physically assaulted someone on international television is flabbergasting.
Venus and Serena Williams, whose childhoods were portrayed in King Richard, were criticized early and often in their tennis careers for perceptions of their “attitudes” and supposed standoffishness, which all seemed like ways to talk euphemistically about them as “angry Black” girls, and then women. (It will be interesting to see how all the Black women invoked at Sunday’s Academy Awards will be discussed and debated about, especially because so much of the discourse so far has focused on the men; given the ways that conjecture about Pinkett Smith’s feelings — which no one has yet to actually publicly hear — have been used to justify her husband’s actions, this scandal is yet another instance of women being caught in the middle of men’s games.) Samuel L. Jackson, whose penchant for playing angry characters was spoofed in the show’s opening monologue, gave Smith some dap and helped to present his Oscar, stage-yelling and channeling Jules Winnfield, his iconic Pulp Fiction character.
For the first two hours of Sunday night’s Academy Awards, everything was all good. All the perceptions of Will Smith stood together, the self “invented, practiced, and performed, reinforced, and refined by friends, loved ones, and the external world” seemed reasonably well-edited. The “fragile construct” appeared relatively intact. The “work in progress” seemed to be in great shape.
Thinking of Eisenstein’s montage theory, I can imagine a series of shots of Will Smith in American pop culture leading up to the announcement of the Best Actor trophy. These images show him attending the Academy Awards as the fresh prince, Hollywood’s box office titan, and the searching soul he is now. Despite all of his personal growth, does he still see himself among a bunch of Los Angeles Kittredges? In his perception, is the Dolby Theatre some larger version of the Kittredges’ Upper West Side apartment, even now? Is the world a place riddled with double-sided Kandinskys — those emblems of chaos and control — including himself?
And then, to return to another crucial set of images: What’s the connection between Smith’s laughter, Pinkett Smith’s eye roll, and Smith’s subsequent march to the stage? What didn’t we see? Did Pinkett Smith look at Smith when the feed cut back to Chris Rock onstage, explaining that the G.I. Jane joke “was a good one”? And if she glanced at her husband, what did she see? Perhaps more crucially, what did he see her seeing? Between that string of images, Rock’s punchline, Smith’s laugh, Pinkett Smith’s displeased look, and the walk to the stage, what was left on the editing room floor? When, exactly, in that sequence, did Smith’s extraordinary control transform into a display of personal chaos? What information is in the cut? ●
Niela Orr is a writer, story producer for Pop Up Magazine, and a contributing editor of the Paris Review.