It seems that, once again, the world is divided.
No, I’m not talking about the controversy surrounding responses to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, or Florida’s ‘Don’t Say Gay’ bill, or whether or not the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge should have taken their tour of the Caribbean.
I’m talking, of course, about ‘The Slap’.
I don’t think I need to explain but, in case you’ve been stuck in a box since March 28th, here’s what happened: During the Academy Awards ceremony, which took place that night, comedian Chris Rock decided that the best joke he could make was to compare Jada Pinkett-Smith to ‘G.I. Jane’ (saying, “Can’t wait for G.I. Jane 2”), in response to her shaved hair — a result of the hair-loss condition alopecia.
Will Smith, Jada’s husband, as he himself explained later, “reacted emotionally”, marching up on stage, slapping Rock across the face and shouting at him, with no omission of colourful language, to keep Jada’s name of of his mouth.
In less than a minute, the air in that room had turned unbearably awkward. No one knew what to make of the whole thing, with many thinking at first that this was going to be a hilarious skit — now, undoubtedly, this scene is fated to a future of being ranked among other shocking Oscars moments, like when ‘Moonlight’ and ‘La La Land’ were mixed up for Best Picture in 2017, or when, in 2014, John Travolta forgot how to pronounce Idina Menzel’s name.
There are so many conversations we could have about this, and even more questions that can be asked. Everything from ‘why did Chris Rock think it was appropriate to make such a joke?’, to ‘how possessed was Will Smith by his toxic masculinity that he felt such a need to protect his wife in this way?’, to ‘was Smith not arrested in an attempt to avoid any allegations of racism against the Academy?’
All these questions are absolutely valid. But it is strange that the only thing we’re choosing to care about is Will Smith’s reaction, rather than equally splitting the coverage on the issue between him and Chris Rock.
We may have been shocked when it first happened. We may have even laughed. But the journalists desperate for clicks and views jumped on the moment, grabbing at anything to hyperbolise one incident. Some prominent publications are even claiming that Rock was punched, not slapped — when, really, he was the one that was punching down with that joke.
This is all not the say that Smith was right with his actions.
Is violence ever the answer? No. But does that make it ok to mock illnesses? Also no. And what’s more, in a country like America, is it ever fair to disrespect a Black woman for choosing to wear her hair how she wants, when Black women’s hair is already so overly-politicised, and has been a punchline for hundreds of years? Absolutely not.
Ultimately, the whole thing shouldn’t have happened, and the following reaction shouldn’t have happened either. It was a hugely unfair altercation, and has completely stolen the focus of what we should be covering and remembering in the future.
Does no one else find it so unbearably embarrassing that this year’s ceremony will for evermore be synonymous with thoughtless words and actions, when so many more significant moments took place?
It seemed a little bitter-sweet but, around half an hour later, Will Smith himself won the award for Best Actor, for his role as Richard Williams in ‘King Richard’, making him the fifth Black man to ever win the award. Upon winning, he quickly apologised for his earlier actions, and made the point that “love will make you do crazy things”, as he learnt from his role. Already clearly wanting to move on, shouldn’t we do so too? His actions were wrong, and maybe Chris Rock will never forgive him, but that has nothing to do with the performance that he gave, which was so moving spoke to so many people that he won such a prestigious award for it.
While we were all wondering whether Smith would then be stripped of the award, we forgot that Ariana DeBose became the first openly queer woman of colour to win an award, for her role as Best Supporting Actress in ‘West Side Story’. This is now DeBose’s fifth award for this movie, which will sit amongst her Screen Actors Guild Award, BAFTA, Golden Globe and Critics’ Choice Movie Award, and we’re conveniently casting this incredible achievement aside, forgetting all the hard work, all the drive it took to get herself to where she is now, and rightfully deserves to be. In a beautiful and emotional acceptance speech, the 25-year-old actress, singer and dancer reminded the audience and viewers that she is an “openly queer woman of colour, an Afro-Latina who found her strength in life through art”; the first person with this description to win, not only this particular award, but any award at the Oscars, casting directors, writers and producers — not the mention we as the viewers — are finally interested in the stories they can tell, and how their experiences shape the characters they portray.
Who we are is so crucial to the character that we put out, whether that be our own personas or works of fiction. Even if actors are not the actual people that we see on-screen, their personalities and outside knowledge offer completely different interpretations of who we see in a movie; you could give two world-class chefs the same bundle of ingredients, and they’d produce completely contrasting meals, so it therefore follows that actors, who (in case we’ve forgotten) are human beings too, will have their own tastes and methods, and will each be able to see something different before them, because of how they’ve seen the world their whole lives. Take Troy Kotsur, for example, the first deaf man to win an Oscar, for being the Best Supporting Actor in ‘CODA’, an American adaptation of the 2014 French movie, ‘La Famille Bélier’. With this production and win, the story is spreading further around the world, raising awareness of the endless sourced of talent within the deaf and disabled community. As Kotsur himself put it, for “the deaf community, the CODA community and the disabled community, this is our moment”, not to be erased later by selective reporters.
In addition, this year’s Oscars also saw a historic win for Best Director. Jane Campion, who directed the film-adaptation of Thomas Savage’s book, ‘The Power of the Dog’, will now join Kathryn Bigelow (‘Hurt Locker’, 2010) and Chloé Zhao (‘Nomadland’, 2021) as the only three female winners of this award. They continue to pave the way for, and will continue to be huge inspirations to female story-tellers across the world, as proof that it is not impossible to be listened to, and that our way of telling stories (whether they are our own, or are our interpretations of others) is valid and original, as well as being crucial to the industry as a whole.
Moreover, the award for Best Live-Action Short Film was given to Aneil Karia and Riz Ahmed — the latter of whom is now the first Muslim and person of Asian descent to win in this category — for ‘The Long Goodbye’, which tells the story on a family of immigrants in Britain whose preparations for a wedding are derailed by a far-right march. In their acceptance speech, the creators explained that “in such divided times, we believe that the role of story is to remind us that there is no ‘us’ and ‘them’, There’s just ‘us’”, emphasising the importance of cinema in providing forms of unity, and revealing so many stories that we are completely oblivious to in our own lives; movies like these allow us to share everything. Celebrations, fears, the ability to come together and to chose what side of a fight we want to be on — everything can be expressed through this form of story-telling, and a successful fulfilment of all these criteria should unquestionably be celebrated, especially as it acts as an even further reminder of the talent that exists in minority groups, and that every single person, no matter their background, has something to say.
Furthermore, we celebrated the work of Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson, who won Best Documentary Feature, for ‘Summer of Soul’. This documentary tells the story of the seemingly forgotten Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, which took place at the same time as the Apollo 11 Moon Landing, as well as while 21 members of the Black Panther Party were charged in a trial in lower Manhattan for trying to bomb and attack police officers, thus completely clouding the concert from the memories of the general public. Nonetheless, ‘Questlove’ completely selflessly dedicated his win at the Oscars to the “marginalised people in Harlem that needed to heal from pain”, adding to what should be the most crucial message of the evening, that these actors, directors and producers have such commendable abilities to tell the stories of those who don’t have the resources to tell them themselves.
You see, the questions we should be asking about that night shouldn’t be surrounding our fascination in a 30-second period of chaos. We shouldn’t be thinking about who will say or do what next, about who’s going to take the next hit.
We should be asking: why on earth did none of these brilliant talents have a chance to win before? Why has this only been the first queer woman of colour, or the first deaf man, or the first Muslim and person of Asian descent, or only the third female director, or the fifth Black man ever?
These are not the only talented people from minorities that have existed, why didn’t we give them recognition earlier?
And why are we so keen to take it away now?
Sure, there was a moment. A very awkward, shocking, uncomfortable one. But we cannot, under any circumstances, let that be the only thing we take away from the ceremony. For the sake of every single other person who deserves to be celebrated for their work, the stories that they have told, the people they have helped. It makes no sense to care, when there are so much bigger things to thing about, like who we can look forward to as the next momentous winner of these awards, and what someone else will be able to bring to the Oscars’ table.
By Sarah Clif, student