Although it has nothing to do with buses and almost nothing to do with cinema, I find myself drawn by "the Will Smith moment," because it has everything to do with human behavior, which we know is the only reason any of us are interested in the above two worlds in the first place.
1. A Different Stage
The uncensored video of the incident, which international audiences saw live, just plain fascinates me. It represents in microcosm a multitude of things, one of which is rarely to be found on television: I appreciated seeing a moment of actual true emotions, expressed with zero pretense. In watching the sort of exchange I'm rather more familiar with seeing on the nighttime street, I realized how much context can make a thing seem stranger than it is. We live in a world where the image of something seems to count more than the thing itself. But this was not the image of decorum. Here was The Thing itself, ugly and terrible but real, borne out of force and truth and shame and guilt and anger.
This was no performance; this was a man who always has to perform, and for thirty seconds decided not to. Do we decry him for this blip alongside decades of good behavior? By what standards do we measure a life with different problems than our own? In pointing fingers at others, are we trying to draw attention away from our own flaws?
Last night Will Smith responded to a perceived barb as many folks have on the 7, the E Line, or in Philly, where Mr. Smith comes from– except instead of those milieus it was in an elevated and rarefied atmosphere. The shock on people’s faces; the pregnant and confused silence as recorded by writers who were present; Rock’s shaken replies, making clear this is no stunt (as Smith’s manner in repeating his line also makes abundantly clear). We thirst for truth, and found it in an unexpected place last night.
The most inexplicable part of it for me was watching Smith, who initially laughs– and not a little– at Chris Rock’s joke... and then watching him wallop Rock for precisely the same joke less than ten seconds later. I can’t help but wonder if being caught by his wife at laughing inflamed in him a desire to overreact against himself, against the shame of his own initial lackadaisical reaction.
What further intrigues me is that Smith has been very good at sustaining a nigh-universally likable public image that convincingly conveys being in control and being easy-going. While I have no expectation of someone being those things all the time, as a public figure one knows one has to moderate one’s responses disproportionately, especially in a live broadcast environment. The hitherto-unsullied degree of Smith’s reputation and his longevity in being well-liked in the industry suggest his amiable persona is probably accurate.
He had to have known how long-lasting and ignominious the damage of such a rash action would be, to himself and those around him, and how messily it would complicate his career. I wonder if he felt a desire to rebel against an encroaching pressure of keeping a good face on at all times, as he has now so obediently done for decades. I’m reminded of Tom Cruise firing his publicist in 2005 and behaving in a way he likely found liberating and truthful, even if it cost him fans. As Sasha Stone, another journalist who was in attendance pointed out, Smith's smug confidence as he returned to his seat is entirely at odds with the Smith we think we know.
3. Damage Control
I’m also intrigued that Meredith O’Sullivan, Smith’s longtime publicist, and others (namely Denzel and Tyler Perry, as well as Nic Kidman, who stopped by to give him a hug) huddled with Smith during commercial breaks, with O’Sullivan consulting with him quietly but earnestly during every single commercial break between 'That Moment' and Best Actor. To me this implies resistance on Smith’s part to take O’Sullivan’s advice, which had to be some variation of what all celebrity apologies require to be effective:
1) taking responsibility for one’s actions,
2) acknowledging the hurt they’ve caused in a manner that suggests self-awareness, and
3) (though it’d be too soon after the event for this one) indicating a concrete plan for self-improvement.
I imagine Smith said he was willing to apologize to everyone except Rock, since that’s exactly what he ended up doing. (To no one's surprise, Smith released a predictably thoughtfully worded piece hitting all the right marks today.)
I can’t help but wonder if his rambling if heartfelt six-minute speech, waffling as it did between defending himself and apologizing to secondary and tertiary parties, made things even worse. While imperfect messiness is to be expected when forced to comment without deliberation on such a recent mistake, his lack of apology to Rock is an omission that deafened in its silence, and subsequent notices of him dancing the night away at afterparties to his own previous musical hits don’t do him any favors.
It was a highly imperfect speech. There was an opportunity to restage the event hypothetically ("here’s what I should’ve done"); there was an opportunity to transform the moment into a teachable one ("learn from my mistake"); there was an opportunity to emphasize that people act in ways they regret ("a person is more than their worst moment; I ask for your forgiveness"); and an opportunity for Smith, a father, to iterate to boys everywhere that violence is an inappropriate response to non-violence (“yell at comedians, don’t punch them”). As Ms. Stone notes regarding abusive relationships, what follows a physical altercation is the tearful apology. I find it strange to listen to Smith extolling the virtues of love mere minutes after punching someone out in front a global audience, with the expectation that we should take both moments seriously– but such is the nature of the contradictory human animal.
4. Matters of Principle
I find more curious his unquestioning advocacy for “protecting” women, and am reminded of the great writer Susan Faludi’s articulation of the “protection racket” in her monumental study of postwar emasculation, Stiffed: the Betrayal of the American Man. The "protection racket" is the long-standing practice where men seek to “protect” women from other men they deem worse than they, but in the course of doing so sometimes exhibit behavior just as oppressive. I can hardly think of a better example than last night. Does Jada Pinkett Smith need Will’s "protection?” Support, certainly, but… this? In 1963 Betty Friedan argued that women are adults who can take care of themselves. Conversely, Tiffany Haddish calls Smith's reaction “the most beautiful thing I've ever seen” and “what your husband is supposed to do, right?”
Clearly mileage varies...
Either way, I believe Smith’s motivations were entirely personal, and naught to do with Jada’s honor, but his own definition of himself as a man in relation to Jada, and in relation to Rock. He wasn't thinking; he was being. The host of factors and principles which impelled him out of his seat are too myriad to name. For me, the thought of Smith noticing his wife's hurt at his own laughter at a joke made at her expense, and finding reprehensible that part of himself, is touching. How human of him to try to stamp it out, to erase with vigor and conclusiveness the actions we most regret.
Who has not been at war with the lesser versions of their self?
How easy it is to make things worse. You learn in the Chinese board game Go that some mistakes just have to be moved on from, their losses accepted, because further intervention only worsens matters. You can't fix everything. We do our best.
5. The Thing No One is Talking About
Which brings us to Chris Rock. After doing what he often does– improvising and taking chances with jokes that push the envelope, often with cutting insight, though rather less so here– Rock shifted gears, realizing the mood of the person antagonizing him was not at all in jest. I find it riveting. Ridley Scott’s G.I. Jane is a positive portrayal of a strong (bald) female character, which is probably why Rock felt like chancing the joke, in poor taste though it is. Complicating the moment is Smith and Jada already being made fun of earlier in the same ceremony, as well as Rock poking fun at Jada’s expense at a previous Oscars in 2017. Will and Jada have also been having their own relationship difficulties, though I’ve made an effort not to read about that (not my business!). Basically, it’s never just the last straw.
But the one thing no one is talking about is also the thing I find most impressive:
The fact that Chris Rock did not strike back.
In America we think of the doer as the subject, whether in grammar or otherwise; that's why we speak of this as the "Will Smith" incident. But inaction is as powerful as action. Restraint can save the day; silence can speak louder than words.
Such non-action as Rock displayed in last night's heated moment takes guts and character, as we know from the world of the street. It is easier simply to act. Rock chooses to think first, refraining from responding physically– despite the mano-a-mano challenge in front of a massive audience of peers and strangers numbering in the millions. Susan Faludi would be impressed. A recent NYT profile of Rock detailing his newfound passion for therapy and emotional investigation now further serves to explain Rock’s reaction, unequivocally displaying how that approach has paid off. It helps to think a few chess moves ahead.
It helps to think, period.
(That Rock manages even to remain standing is its own feat, given the size difference between the two and the complete unpredictability of the event. There is a significant physiological difference between having even a slight expectation of physical conflict, and predicting none. Rock predicts none because this is the Oscars, and he still manages to keep his footing.)
That Rock regains his composure and goes about the business of presenting Best Doc (to Summer of Soul, in a moment of almost absurd irony) in under a minute is impressive. I call that consummate professionalism. He’s being paid to do a job, does so under humiliating duress, and completes his task. If either of these men is at all qualified to give a rambling six-minute monologue on an international live broadcast about the importance of tolerance and loving others, it would be Chris Rock.
6. What Didn't Happen
Additionally, Rock benefits from Smith’s overreaction in that it rather forcefully swings the spotlight away from the misfire of his own joke; without it, all our Monday morning carping would have been about Rock’s misstep as a comedian, and how comedians have a tricky job of pushing the envelope and trying to search out where the line is. That type of work, because it involves taking risks, necessarily requires that there will be mistakes. There will be moments of going too far. Like perhaps this one.
It is human to make a mistake.
If Will Smith had instead boldly walked up on stage, as he did, but instead asked for the microphone and said, "Chris, I think what you just said is hurtful and unkind. My wife has been battling this auto-immune condition for years and I'm right by her side, and because of the heartache and pain and disruption it has caused us we are unable to tolerate your wisecrack. You're better than that."
You know what would've happened. Chris Rock would've stood in cowed silence, as he did, except as a monumental dolt, and we would all nod our heads, agreeing that making fun of alopecia is, yes, a mistake. But that is not what happened. What happened is that Rock's flub will forever be a minor sidebar in the conversation of someone else's history-making overreaction, a monumental lapse of judgment which will make comedians everywhere nervous to try out their jokes, however (mis)calculated, for some time to come.
7. What I Saw
It is human to make a mistake. When I see Chris Rock I see an enthusiastic jokester who improvised a line he quickly realized would've benefited from more consideration.
When I see Jada Pinkett Smith I see an actor in failing health doing her best, here in support of her partner's big night and trying to make the best of things, tired from the beguiling fact that no matter how easy life gets, it remains primarily a series of struggles.
When I see Will Smith I see a devoted husband who saw a look from his wife and no doubt recalled their shared struggles with her illness, no doubt recalled the tearful nights and hard decisions and times shared high and low, and realized with forceful passion and deep anger that he had violated himself. That moments of painful weakness with his wife were being ridiculed in broad daylight. And he saw that he no longer wished to play along and wear a dumb grin after every comment made. That his allegiance was not to cameras or fans or even career but to his life partner. I saw a man furious with himself, furious that he had betrayed something precious to him for things less important. Who stumbled through his acceptance speech about as well as you could hope given the pressure and circumstances, who plaintively tried, and partly succeeded, to convey with inarticulate and unstudied words that he, at large and deep down, endeavors as best as he knows how, to the absolute upper limit of his human abilities, to be a good man.
Now that I do believe.