Bearing in mind that there are more important things going on in the world, and that politicians tend to sneak through questionable legislation when people have their attention turned to celebrity and other entertainment-related issues, I nonetheless thought I’d write up a brief(ish) thought about the Will Smith-Chris Rock-Jada Pinkett-Smith debacle.
There is a lot that everyone knows already (or at least has already found out) in terms of backstory, and my aim is not to rehash that. I have no extra details to add, though I might make mention to some of the details already known. Furthermore, while there is perhaps necessary speculation in trying to ‘understand’ what happened, my aim here is not to ‘explain’ it on the level of personal psychology (what Will Smith, or anyone else, was feeling), but to discuss what happened, including why it seems to matter so much, in terms of wider structural issues.
That is, acknowledging my own position as a white, cis-gendered male film scholar, I nonetheless wish to ‘read’ this moment as giving the lie to the ongoing/perpetual white supremacy of the world, especially in relation to the imposition historically and in the present of blackness (what Zakiyyah Iman Jackson refers to as the process of ‘blackening’), which finds itself incapable of humanity as it must always be ‘superhuman’ or ‘sub-human.’
As many people have already noted, the events played out in a way that is very in keeping with Will Smith’s star persona. Although Smith has discussed a lingering fear that he is a coward in his autobiography, especially in relation to how he did not stick up for his mother when she suffered abuse from his father, he is also a ‘bad boy.’
A bad boy? But Will Smith is seemingly squeaky clean, no? Well, Will Smith does not swear in his records (the observation is Eminem’s); but between Fresh Prince, Bad Boys, Suicide Squad, Ali, and perhaps especially Hancock and Six Degrees of Separation, there is an ongoing association between Smith and a kind of rebellious, bad-tempered Blackness. Smith has himself of course made links between his behaviour and his own role in King Richard.
As has been observed, Will ends up in Bel Air in The Fresh Prince because of an altercation, an inversion of events that played out at the Oscars. But where Will ends up in Hollywood as a result of a punch in the show, this punch in theory could land him out of Hollywood (although I personally find this highly unlikely).
However, what plays out in Fresh Prince is that Will ‘passes’ for Los Angeles royalty when in fact he is not; and what we have happening at the Oscars is that the to-be-crowned Best Actor Oscar winner demonstrates a lack of ‘class’ in front of the Hollywood film industry, even as he was bated by Chris Rock’s joke about his wife (about whom, more later). In both cases, it turns out that Will is in Hollywood by mistake; this is not his place.
Meanwhile, in Hancock, we learn that Smith’s superhero can actually be a bit of a slob. And in Six Degrees of Separation, the young Paul (played by Smith) destroys the nice image that he has with the well-to-do Kittredge family when he is revealed not only as a fraud who is not the son of Sidney Poitier (as he claims), but gay to boot (he invites a guy round to the Kittredge house at night, only to get busted by Stockard Channing’s Ouisa Kittredge).
If we see Smith playing out a kind of version in real life of something that has happened repeatedly in his films (‘Will Smith disappoints people with his behaviour’), it is not that Smith’s roles have ‘got to him.’ There clearly is something at work in and with stardom whereby stars and their roles do become conflated (and if we wish to discuss how things are ‘written in the stars’ in the sense of being inevitable, we might semi-jokingly contend that there clearly is something going on with Libra men at the moment given that Smith’s fellow-Libra Vladimir Putin is clearly trying to let out some aggression via his invasion of Ukraine).
But more than how stars bring a reality to their roles that then feeds back into their real lives, the altercation at the Oscars must (I believe) be read through the lens of race, or more particularly critical race theory. In doing so, we can see how the way in which Blackness has historically been constructed in a hegemonically white society is clearly playing out on many levels in relation to what took place at the Oscars.
Smith’s star persona is a not a bad place to start. If in Six Degrees… he is the ‘fake son’ of Sidney Poitier, at the ceremony his turn to Denzel Washington for support and in terms of repeating his advice (‘At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you’) would also suggest his desire to place himself within a heritage of Black performers who are characterised by dignity as well as brilliance (one of the funnier Twitter comments suggested – with a nod to Washington’s recent role as the lead character in The Tragedy of Macbeth – that this is why you do not say ‘Macbeth’ on stage, as per the superstition that actors never mention the title of ‘the Scottish play’; for, the presence of Macbeth in the collective psyche is precisely about downfall during moments of glory, as well as about provoking such dire box office receipts that the theatre company has to do a production of Macbeth just to make themselves profitable again).
But Smith and Washington are very different stars, even as Washington’s own Best Actor Oscar came for a portrayal of stereotypical ‘bad’ Blackness in Training Day. And even though John David Washington plays someone perhaps a bit closer to what we might understand as the self-destructive Will Smith performer in the recent Malcolm & Marie, his father Denzel is generally much more associated with what we might term ‘uplift’ than rambunctiousness, as per Smith.
But what does this rambunctiousness mean when read through the lens of race? I might suggest that structurally it is an expression of an anger that has its roots in long-standing histories of racial inequality. And that it in some senses has at its root, then, a kind of justification, but which gets played out here in an unjustified and unjustifiable fashion, thereby demonstrating both the impossibility of Blackness in the contemporary world (it must become inhuman in its ‘perfection’; for it to be ‘human’ is always both to fail, and to fail in, a white-dominated world). Furthermore, I might underline that it is impossible because it has nowhere else to go.
Imagine it this way. Imagine that reparations took place. Imagine that the world was (finally) Black after having for so many centuries been white. What happens in such scenario? Well, without wishing to offer up too great a swerve, without making a comparison that is too off the mark, and without wishing in any way to justify white fear of a Black planet, what happens is that some righteous anger must get expressed. It is only human for this to be so, as we see in a place like Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe nationalised white-owned industries and properties, with anti-white violence also at times playing out (leading to about 90 per cent of Zimbabwe’s white population migrating out of the country between 1975 and 2012).
That is, even though he was not yet aware of his impending win, I might say that Will Smith’s angry outburst expresses some of the justified anger that needs to be released at the moment of Black liberation – at his moment of victory (bad tempered victory in sports is not uncommon; we are far less used to it in entertainment circles). For, such a moment cannot simply be characterised by gratitude; to be ‘thankful’ implies that one still is in the power of ‘the master’. And if it was unruliness towards the master that got one to a place of freedom, then that unruliness must continue – for it is the defining nature of that freedom.
Put differently, we might say that, like any power grab, this assertion of power must be violent – because structures of power demand that it is so.
We might seem to have hit a contradiction here: unruliness leads to liberation, and yet we are never liberated really from structures of power (meaning that we cannot and should not be violent in our takeovers of power, since that is to perpetuate the master’s value system of power-as-violence; this in turn leads to theorisations of ‘soft’ power [which I would suggest are always in fact accompanied by ‘hard’ violence]). Beyond being a reason to disapprove of Will Smith’s actions, though (he should have laughed; that would be the ‘real’ expression of his victory), this does place Smith in an impossible situation: at his moment of victory, he is supposed to change entirely, meaning that his victory is not a victory since the change would be to please the ‘master’ and the master’s demand for gentility/docility at all times, even when one is undergoing the violence that the master imposes on all blackened subjects, including by having them defined as black. That is, Will can only be free by renouncing his freedom; and if he refuses to renounce his freedom, he will be imprisoned – in the sense of morally condemned if not literally incarcerated.
So… the impossible situation (Smith is not free, whether he continues to be Will or not) is a possible structural reason for Will Smith’s outburst. But let us not be blind to what also took place, which is that Will Smith might have disrupted the Oscars, but he also did so by hitting another Black man, at a moment when that man effectively dissed his wife.
In order to get into how these details in fact are perfectly in keeping with, rather than exceptional to, the structural logic that I am trying to describe, let us run a couple of scenarios that no doubt have played out in many people’s minds. Let us imagine Will Smith punching Ricky Gervais for making the same joke. If he did it (which I personally doubt he would do), then my guess is that Smith would now be in prison. Furthermore, if he’d responded in the same way to Rebel Wilson’s jokes about him at the Baftas (Smith’s ‘best performance in the past year was being OK with all his wife’s boyfriends’), then Smith would also for certain be in prison.
Why? Because the semiotics of Smith punching a white man, and especially a blonde white woman, play out very differently to the semiotics of a Black man punching a Black man. The former is unacceptable because it is an image that contravenes – while also making apparent – the ongoing white supremacy of our contemporary world (not that Gervais or Wilson are card-carrying racists; but whiteness cannot be threatened in the way that Blackness can). The latter, meanwhile, is Blackness as usual (to paraphrase a comment that I read on Twitter, is the Oscars now black enough for y’all? – a reference to the 2016 #Oscarssowhite Oscars).
That Smith enacted his violence against Rock, then, is an expression of how the violence that is required to create white supremacy means that violence is perhaps the only means of challenging white supremacy – and both that if one wants not to succumb to the violence of white supremacy, then the violence must be directed inwards (Black on Black violence), and that the very inward-directing of this violence (Blacks fighting each other) is exactly what retains whiteness in its supreme position.
That is, it is impossible to be Black and for one’s life not to be violent. This impossibility is the tragedy of Black American life. And it is why, I might hazard, one’s feeling of anguish is so great at seeing it play out on a stage like the Oscars; for the anguish, the dread, is the dread of the inevitable, the impossible.
But we’re not done yet. Because there is still Chris Rock and, of course, Jada Pinkett-Smith to consider in this process.
Rock has widely been criticised for ‘punching down’ at Pinkett-Smith in making a joke at the expense of her appearance. But Rock is expressing the same violence – here verbal, not physical – that Smith is. If Rock made a joke about Pinkett-Smith at the 2016 Oscars, and if Rock can be read as something of a race ‘traitor’ for not boycotting those Oscars, then Smith is neither avenging an ongoing feud nor shaming the ‘house slave’ for being the white man’s stoolie.
Rock could have made a different choice back in 2016 (and of course he could not have made his joke in 2022), but these are not because he is a traitor to Blackness. This is not to excuse Rock (as the above is not to excuse Smith); however, it is to suggest that Rock could not have made any similar jokes at the expense of white women. I guess that somewhere inside him was a hope that the Smiths collectively would let him get away with it, which clearly they did not. But for him to give expression to his own feeling of the violence of a white supremacist world, now also revealed as misogynist, he had to direct his anger somewhere, and it got directed at Pinkett-Smith.
But why would Rock go after someone’s appearance/body in that way? Obviously, he ‘should’ not do so. But in some senses, Rock’s ‘joke’ plays out in a precise fashion that conforms to histories of anti-blackness in the west, the pressure created by which is perhaps inescapable, and which perhaps he was hoping to ‘own’ (or paternalistically to encourage Pinkett-Smith to ‘own’ her ‘condition’ – not of alopecia, but of Blackness).
Commentators have already described a certain irony that Rock mocked Pinkett-Smith’s hair (loss) having himself produced Good Hair, a film about hair in the African American community (subscribers to MUBI might want to check out Ghanaian-American filmmaker Akosua Adoma Owusu’s ‘hair’ trilogy, which currently is available on that service).
As Amani Morrison has pointed out, black women have in the past protested against white people’s fascination with their hair by carrying placards during protests that read ‘I AM NOT YOUR SARAH BARTMAN.’
The latter is a reference to the so-called Hottentot Venus,
a South African woman coerced by an English doctor to participate in a traveling exhibit in the early nineteenth century. Showcased as a curiosity because of her large buttocks and extended labia, Bartman embodied the racial, sexual Other—one whose body was testament to black anatomical and sexual deviance. (Morrison 2018: 84)
In other words, as Morrison goes on to argue, for Rock to interpellate Pinkett-Smith for her hair is to interpellate her as ‘deviant.’
Rock is thus trying to turn into a joke the way in which Pinkett-Smith might be or is structured as ‘deviant’ in a white supremacist society, with the alopecia being only a symptom of the deeper deviance of being Black. That is, what structurally upsets Pinkett-Smith and Smith is not so much that Rock mocks her alopecia as that he reminds them that they are Black.
I don’t mean here to say that Pinkett-Smith and Smith are personally ashamed of being Black. I highly doubt it (and do not believe that they or anyone should be). But I am trying to get at how Blackness is a condition historically imposed upon people, and in being ‘deviant,’ it is always a marker of ‘shame.’ There is no shame in being Black per se, but, as Frantz Fanon might argue, to be Black is always shameful if one is Black in a white supremacist world, since it always functions as a reminder of one’s powerlessness.
For Rock to make his joke then, is to remind the Smiths and everyone that the world is indeed white supremacist. Faced with that inevitability, how can Will Smith react? Just accept it? Or try to punch back?
But while Rock’s joke woefully misfires, I don’t think that he is offering this reminder of powerlessness on purpose. Indeed, in his appeal to a white film (GI Jane, starring Demi Moore), he might seem to be trying to legitimise not just his joke but also Pinkett-Smith.
However, because he ‘blackens’ them publicly, he enters inadmissible territory and therefore engenders Smith’s retribution.
To make it worse, in evoking a film (GI Jane) that historically was understood as challenging gender norms, Rock in fact highlights how Blackness has historically been thought to fall outside of the male/female and masculine/feminine gender binaries that are the constructs of white society.
That is, while it is okay for Demi Moore to pseudo-trans, or to embody a ‘masculine femininity’ in GI Jane, for Rock to call upon Pinkett-Smith to do the same is a painful reminder of how Blackness, and especially Black womanhood, has fallen outside of these binaries all along (and with the falling-outside-of-gender of Blackness being a tool for reinforcing the ‘correct’ nature of binaristic gender thinking in a white supremacist world that in truth is defined by countless complex sexes when we look across and even within species, including our own).
If you will, a white woman can be transgressive in challenging gender norms; a Black woman cannot because she always transgressed – and made normal! – those norms, as the Sarah Bartman case makes clear (and as scholars like Roderick A Ferguson and Marquis Bey have so brilliantly and cogently argued, among others).
When we add into the mix the complex sexuality that is at play in the Smith household (the couple seem to have an open relationship, the ‘deviant’ nature of which is clearly highlighted in the ‘joke’ made by Rebel Wilson at the Baftas), then we again see how there is at work a confirmation in the Smiths that Blackness involves ‘deviant’ sexuality as well as gender (Will as Paul in Six Degrees…), but with the rendering of that behaviour as ‘deviant’ being a way of normalising – and enforcing – the heteronormative and ‘non-deviant’ behaviour of white (Protestant) values (for a brilliant take on how we might think differently about such issues, check out the work of LH Stallings).
So… Rock is punching down. Rock, like Smith, is in the wrong. But where else does he have to go? Effectively he cannot punch up. He wants to legitimise Blackness as difference, and in so doing he must by definition make reference to bodies, since it is the body that is the marker of racial as well as sexual difference. But in doing this, he reinforces that Blackness has been rendered different (has been rendered ‘Black’ in the first place) by whiteness.
Rock is not just a ‘house slave,’ though, doing the work of the master – even as all comedy ‘roasts’ by awards ceremony hosts function in some respects as a way of both reinforcing while also policing celebrity power (these celebrities must not get too big for their boots, even as only the clown can answer back to them, much like in classical theatre; put differently, the Oscar winner is powerful, but not so powerful as the system that confers that power to them; Oscar winners can be Black, but the Oscars as a system are indeed white).
Rather, Rock is, like Smith, giving expression to violence, attempting to transmute it into comedy just as Smith must transmute his violent urges into a self-destructive violence against another black man. For Rock, as for Smith, then, there is an impossibility. Not that he ‘must’ host the show or tell that specific joke; but if he does not host the show, he is powerless; if he does but does not tell that joke, then he is not transgressive in any way, and therefore powerless; and if he does and he does tell that joke, then he becomes embroiled in Black-on-Black violence and is powerless. Faced with giving up at the start or taking it as far as you can go and seeing if you can find a way through towards liberty, you have to follow the path to liberty, no?
And yet/and so both Smith and Rock are rendered into a spectacle of Black masculine violence (not least because Smith, in order to counter any accusations of deviance, must demonstrate his masculinity, or so white hegemonic logic would have him think and behave), much as Pinkett-Smith, otherwise so vocal using her own media platforms, is rendered another silent Black woman, almost invisible in proceedings.
At this moment of Black triumph, then (Will Smith wins an Oscar), we have a reminder of the clear and ongoing structuring role of race in our white supremacist modernity. The events are a catastrophe, in that any racist will feel vindicated in their racism. But while on a ‘simple’ level it could have played out very differently (Rock could not have risked the joke; Smith could not have reacted in that way), on a structural level it plays out according to a clear, historical and violent logic.
It is, in this sense, as inevitable as tragedy – as inevitable as the tragedy of Macbeth, even. Black men are reduced to internecine fighting, while the Black woman is effectively reduced to nothing once more. To get around this impossibility requires superhuman skills – at a time when one wants to be accepted first of all, or finally, as human (as opposed to deviant).
In his display of humanity, Will Smith does perversely send out a message that clearly has its sympathisers, even as it will be read as ‘sub-human,’ brutish and animalistic by others. And as the Oscars seek to elevate and maintain some humans into the divine (non-human) realm of stardom, perhaps this ‘anti-stardom’ (this humanity) from Smith has some subversive potential (including as a means of subverting the Oscars – even as Smith expresses contrition in its aftermath – and even as it will also be read as illegal and certainly masculinist by others). But what ‘humanity’ emerges here is only a desperate one in the face of historical and ongoing dehumanisation, especially of the Black woman, whose invisibility renders her what has been theorised by Evelynn Hammonds and others as a ‘black hole.’
Some commentators believe that Smith should face criminal charges, since if he does not, then his example runs the risk of normalising assault. Without wishing to justify his actions or the lack of criminal charges, but I might add that of wider concern is how Black-on-Black assault is considered ‘normal,’ whether or not any particular instance involves prosecution. The obfuscation and invisibilisation of Black women is also ‘normal’.
And so while we think of the Oscars – and the movies in general – as offering to us an escape from reality, there lingers cinema’s other key potential, that of offering images of reality back to ourselves, even if writ large. Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Rock was on stage to announce the category for Best Documentary – won by Questlove’s beautiful Summer of Soul.
Perhaps rather than seeking the master’s approval at the Oscars, maybe there should be no more Oscars. Or if the Oscars be white, then let them be white, and alongside them – replacing them in importance – maybe there should instead be more festivals like the Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969 that Questlove’s film explores (and which was organised by Tony Lawrence, a figure not wholly removed from Will Smith’s Paul in Six Degrees of Separation).
Nuclear war may be on the horizon as white men fight on the eastern edges of Europe. A celebrity dust-up in the west is in certain respects small beer compared to these and other issues. But in its own way, the events at the 2022 Oscars also carry the (impossible) weight of a world (hopefully) seeking to liberate itself from pernicious ideologies and tyranny. Perhaps it is for this reason that it holds not just such a curious appeal (Blackness as spectacle) but also an emotional affect (a kind of anguish at the whole affair) – because it really is an important turn of events in its own way, too.