Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Mea culpa. Last Friday I predicted here that the Sunday night Oscar ceremony would be wall-to-wall political rants, virtue signaling, celebrations of diversity, and lame, politically correct comedy.
For the first couple of hours of the show, that was true. The attempts at humor by the hosts – Amy Schumer, Wanda Sykes, and Regina Hall – might well have been scripted by Amy’s cousin Chuck. Amy’s first joke was about the (fictitious) gender pay gap: “This year the academy hired three women to host, because it’s cheaper than hiring one man.” Then she took a gratuitous jab at an aging straight white male: “Look at Timothee Chalamet,” she said as the camera focused on 67-year-old J.K. Simmons. “What happened?”
Sykes proffered a jest about Mitch McConnell that went right by me, then promised: “We’re gonna have a great night. And for you people in Florida, we’re gonna have a gay night!” – a reference, of course, to the new law (signed Monday by Governor DiSantis, and dishonestly dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” law by its detractors) against grooming schoolchildren. Schumer cracked that at a time when we’re supposed to be celebrating women, the movie King Richard, about the father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams, celebrates a man. And in another aging-white-man dig, she jibed that Leonardo DiCaprio is working hard to heal the environment and thereby “leave behind a cleaner, greener planet for his girlfriends.”
And oh, the diversity! The number of blacks on camera must have broken records. (The show began with Venus and Serena introducing Beyonce and a bevy of black backup singers, live from Compton.) Much was made of the fact that this year’s Best Supporting Actor, Tony Kotsur, is deaf. Accepting Best Supporting Actress, Ariana DeBose, who played Anita in Spielberg’s disastrous West Side Story remake, announced that she’s an “openly queer woman of color, an Afro-Latina.” The winner of an animation award gushed: “I am proud to be part of a film that puts beautiful, diverse characters front and center.” Presenting the costume prize, two black women spoke of “Afro-futuristic looks” and “express[ing] diversity in storytelling.” Then diversity itself stepped onstage in the form of a tiny little man whom it took me a moment to recognize as Elliot – formerly Ellen – Page.
And then it happened. Chris Rock, who’d been tapped to present the award for Best Documentary Feature, started off with a couple of jokes – the first real humor of the evening. Taking in the sight of Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head – she was seated down front, next to her husband, Will – Rock quipped that he looked forward to seeing her in G.I. Jane 2. (It will be recalled that Demi Moore went bald in the 1997 movie G.I. Jane.) Whereupon Will Smith stepped onstage and slapped him in the face. Returning to his seat, he twice shouted at Rock: “Keep my wife’s name out your f–king mouth!”
At first, I thought it was a stunt. Some people are still saying it was. I doubt it. Both Smith and Rock have striven to be seen as good role models for young blacks: why would either of them have wanted to plan a fake confrontation that made them look like gang members in tuxedos? Also, if it had been planned, Rock, one of the funniest men alive, would’ve contrived a witty reaction to the slap. He didn’t; in fact, he struggled to get back on script. Finally, would Smith have used the F-word – twice – on live network TV if he hadn’t really been out of control?
As far as I’m concerned, Smith acted abominably, whereas Rock was a class act. Although visibly stunned, he kept his cool and kept at his job. Some observers, noting that Pinkett Smith shaves her pate because she suffers from a skin disorder called alopecia, have actually praised Smith for “standing up for her.” But as Hadley Freeman pointed out in the Guardian, “It’s quite weird that Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith were fine with the host Regina Hall joking about their open marriage early in the evening, but not with Rock joking about Pinkett Smith’s hair, no?”
What compounds the weirdness is that Smith laughed at Rock’s joke – until he saw that Jada wasn’t laughing. Could it be that he was really stewed at Hall – and still burned, deep down, by the recent revelation that Jada had two-timed him with a guy half her age – but, unable to slap either Hall or Jada, took it out on Rock? Or did the slap have more to do with the fact that he was on tenterhooks, desperate to know if he’d won Best Actor – an accolade that he’s long considered long overdue?
One big question: why did they let him get away with it? A lesser member of the audience who’d struck someone on camera and hurled F-bombs would’ve been hauled out of there prontissimo and handed over to the L.A. cops. Instead, Smith was allowed to stay, collect his award, and bask in applause – a standing ovation, even. On Monday’s The Five, Jesse Watters suggested that if, say, a white hothead like Mel Gibson had slapped Rock, he’d have been booed roundly by the audience and dragged out by security, superstar or not. Was there indeed an element of racism – an unarticulated feeling that the assault, being black-on-black, wasn’t quite as horrible or shocking as it might otherwise have been – in ABC execs’ decision to leave Smith alone?
In any case, that slap wasn’t just the evening’s headline event; to me, it felt like a defining moment for Hollywood in our time, and even for the American left. Because it pulled back the curtain on Tinseltown’s, and the left’s, pious virtue-signaling, its phony embrace of diversity, to reveal at least a hint of the ugliness, the narcissism, and the potential for violence that lie beneath. And who better to pull that curtain back than Will Smith? He’s always been one of the phoniest of showbiz phonies, constantly turning up on talk shows to polish his image as the most evolved person in the room. “I don’t want to be an icon,” he’s said. “I want to be an idea.” He’s declared that his life’s goal is to “advance and elevate humanity.” (He’s also expressed the desire to see the U.S. “cleansed” of Trump voters.)
Shortly after the big slap came the Academy’s “In Memoriam” tribute, which reminded us that Sidney Poitier died in January. Poitier was always aware of being viewed, fairly or not, as a representative of black people, and he did black people – and America – a profound service by always comporting himself with dignity. So did Hattie McDaniel, the first-ever black Oscar winner, who in her 1940 acceptance speech tearfully expressed the hope that she would always be “a credit to my race and to the motion picture industry.” These days, of course, you’re not supposed to talk about being “a credit to my race.” I don’t see why. Any excuse to behave properly is a good one. Jews used to talk about fellow Jews who were a “shanda for the goyim” – i.e., they gave Jews a bad name. Years ago, at Gay Pride parades, there were always the handful of participants who insisted on acting and dressing like freaks, and who made the rest of us bite our tongues, knowing they’d be the ones shown on the news that evening. Chris Rock himself, in a hilariously brilliant 1996 routine, acknowledged that, yes, there are some blacks who are a credit to their race and others who aren’t.
In the year 2022, maybe we’ve heard enough about white supremacy and black victimhood, about the patriarchy, about transphobia. Maybe we need to talk more about individual decency, responsibility, and what it means to be civilized – whatever your skin color.
Later in the evening Will Smith won the Best Actor award for King Richard. In his acceptance speech he apologized to the audience – but not to Chris Rock – for the slap. He actually tried to put a noble spin on his thuggish conduct: “Love will make you do crazy things.” He compared himself to Richard Williams, his character in King Richard, who “was a fierce defender of his family.” And he played the victim card, saying that in show business “you’ve got to be able to take abuse” and accept “people disrespecting you.” But he displayed not the slightest hint of humility. Instead, he fell back smoothly into his habitual grandiosity, saying that he wants to be “a vessel for love” and “an ambassador for love.” “In this time in my life, in this moment,” he stated,
I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world….I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people….It’s not about winning an award for me, it’s about being able to shine a lot on all the people.
According to the Guardian’s Freeman, who dropped in on the hottest post-Oscar parties in L.A., the big stars were all silent on the big slap. Of course they were. They realized that Will Smith hadn’t just smacked Chris Rock – he’d dealt a blow to all the reigning left-wing myths, Hollywood myths, Oscar myths. Namely, the myth that being left of center is a mark of virtue; the myth that anybody in the film industry has a right to lecture the rest of America about character and ethics and morality (let alone to posture pretentiously as, heaven help us, “an ambassador for love”); and the myth that everything, everywhere, is all about, and can be explained by, the oppression of blacks by whites. Those pieties have been too potent for too long now. Thanks to Will Smith, they’re at least a little bit shakier today than they were last week.