By now, you’ve almost certainly seen the most exciting moment from last night’s Academy Awards show: Will Smith’s on-stage slapping of Chris Rock.
It was one of those moments that’s so surreal it almost seemed to be staged. But no, that really happened. In response to a joke Rock told about Smith’s wife—the comedian mockingly congratulated Jada Pinkett Smith on starring in “G.I. Jane II,” an apparent reference to the star’s shaved head and recently-made-public struggle with hair loss—Smith strode onto the Oscar stage and delivered a single, firm, right-handed slap to Rock’s face before returning to his seat and shouting several expletives at the host.
If you’re looking for a beat-by-beat breakdown of the entire incident, James Vincent Michael O’Brien (otherwise known as “Jomboy”) as usual doesn’t disappoint:
Will Smith smacks Chris Rock, a breakdown pic.twitter.com/Fh75AxM8TT
— Jomboy (@Jomboy_) March 28, 2022
It’s not exactly clear how the Smith Slap is going to play in the culture wars, but sides are already being taken. Is Smith, who won Best Actor later in the evening for his performance in King Richard, a strong, masculine role model for stepping up to defend the honor of his wife? Or is he a Hollywood snowflake who can’t take a joke? Is Rock a brave joke-teller being physically assaulted for daring to transgress Hollywood’s limits on free speech? Or did he get what he deserved for mocking someone with a medical issue?
Frankly, I don’t much care about any of that. What’s more interesting than the slap itself is what happened immediately after.
Check out how Rock handled himself after being physically attacked by one of the biggest names in Hollywood during a completely unscripted moment. He doesn’t flinch. He doesn’t hit back, and he doesn’t apologize either. He actually laughs at how ridiculous the moment was—”Will Smith just slapped the shit out of me” is now one of the most quotable lines in Oscars history—and then he just…gets on with the show. He seems unintimidated and unflappable.
Chris Rock won the Oscars slap fight. He won it by refusing to escalate the violence and by refusing to ask an authority figure to step in on his behalf—there was no call for “security” and he appears not to be pressing charges against Smith.
He stood up and told a (pretty lame) joke that might offend some people. He suffered some consequences for his words. And then he just kept on doing his damn job by announcing the nominees for best documentary.
That’s not to let Smith off the hook here. Physical violence in response to mere words is never an appropriate choice. But too often, the same people who engage in provocative and potentially offensive speech are only doing it so they can run to the authorities or the Twitter mob when their targets lash out. The restraint and good humor demonstrated by Rock should be a role model for those who want to defend free expression from bullies on the right and the left—and from whichever side of the culture war ends up claiming Smith.