The recent Oscars controversy and its ensuing media frenzy undermined years of institutional improvements and intersectional acknowledgments by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The confrontation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock overshadowed historic victories for underrepresented groups in the demographically stagnant film industry. This incident further signifies how tolerance of violence and misogyny remains firmly entrenched in Hollywood.
The ceremony began auspiciously enough, with Beyoncé’s vibrant performance of her Oscar-nominated song “Be Alive” from the biopic “King Richard,” starring Smith. Her performance was broadcast from the very same Compton tennis court where Venus and Serena Williams practiced as children, an uplifting touch that honored the Williams sisters and highlighted their struggle to become not only standout athletes within the historically white sport of tennis, but also esteemed guests at the likewise historically white Oscars.
Promise and pride highlighted the night. Three women hosted the show, two of whom were women of color. Ariana DeBose, an openly queer Afro-Latina woman, won Best Supporting Actress, and the telecast recognized the disabled community with prominent use of American Sign Language interpreters and guests using the ASL sign for applause in support of deaf actor Troy Kotsur, who won Best Supporting Actor. CODA‘s Best Picture win stood out as a distinct cultural and intersectional victory, both for the film’s normalization of disability as well as its use of subtitles. The world seemed to appreciate this progress—according to Variety, ratings were up 58 percent from last year’s record low, telling the Academy that its identity-consciousness was welcomed.
This heartening celebration of diversity, inclusion and cinematic excellence came to a crashing halt with a disastrous few seconds of male toxicity displayed by Smith and Rock. Rock, who presented the award for Best Documentary Feature, made an offensive joke about the appearance of actress (and Smith’s wife) Jada Pinkett Smith, who has a shaved head due to the hair loss condition alopecia. Smith infamously reacted by walking on stage, slapping Rock in the face, and angrily yelling and cursing as he sat back down. Smith was not escorted out of the theater despite the assault, although the Academy now claims he was asked to leave and refused. Making the situation even more awkward, 40 minutes later, Smith won the Best Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Venus and Serena Williams’ father in “King Richard.” He gave a tearful acceptance speech where he claimed he was defending women, admitted that he “is a work in progress” and apologized to the Academy, yet omitted Rock. Only after the ceremony did Smith issue a written apology, where he unequivocally stated that violence is not acceptable.
The Academy’s failure to effectively intervene following this incident calls into question reforms that have been at least seven years in the making. The Oscars had reached a low point in progressive values when 20 acting nominations were given to white actors between the 2015 and 2016 ceremonies, coining the phrase #OscarsSoWhite. This shocking statistic coincided with #MeToo in 2017, where female celebrities brought attention to their accounts of sexual harrassment by male Hollywood executives and advocated for survivors to speak out. These Twitter movements coalesced into a meteoric insurrection against the Hollywood establishment by its constituent actors, epitomized in Frances McDormand’s 2018 “inclusion rider” speech. This unprecedented activism placed the Academy on a path of reform: its 2016 membership restructuring promoted greater inclusion of women and diverse identities in the voting base, and in 2020, the Academy imposed an inclusion standard requiring a diverse production crew and cast attached to films nominated for Best Picture. The 2022 Oscars strived to be a gratifying culmination of these changes, and with its diverse array of nominees and hosts, there was the promise of a ceremony that showcased the Academy’s progress more than any other in the show’s history.
That is, until “The Slap” cast doubt on such progress. Smith’s decision to feed into the outrage culture of Rock’s low-brow celebrity ribbing has created potentially long-lasting ramifications for the achievements of Ariana DeBose, Troy Kotsur and everyone belonging to marginalized identities at an event meant to venerate them. Adding insult to injury is Smith’s status as a Hollywood installation, a titan of the entertainment industry for decades who diverted attention from newcomers and breakout talents in greater need of platforming. Perhaps the most grievous thing Smith did is rob himself of his own glory; winning the Best Actor award as its fifth Black recipient in Oscars history is a momentous achievement, but its posterity will be forever diminished by “The Slap.” Smith’s recent resignation from membership in the Academy was the proverbial white flag raising. He has admitted to a pyrrhic victory, where he technically won the award and achieved recognition for his performance, but simultaneously lost the pristine image that the Oscars’ veneer of class and authority serves to reinforce.
Still, some culpability should be lifted from Smith and the 2022 Academy Awards as a whole, as its infamous moments are far less grave than Oscars past. Compare it to the 1973 Academy Awards, when Marlon Brando famously sent the Indigenous actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather as a surrogate to decline his Best Actor award for “The Godfather” and speak on the misrepresentation of Native communities in Hollywood films. Littlefeather was booed by the audience, mocked by Clint Eastwood and would have been assaulted by John Wayne had it not been for security guards restraining him. Additionally, the Oscars has a storied history of lionizing immoral figures, such as awarding Roman Polanski Best Director in 2002 after he was convicted of the rape of an underaged girl, or showering the Weinstein Company with a cumulative 81 awards despite the company’s culture of sexual exploitation being an open secret in Hollywood. Though “The Slap” was undoubtedly shocking, Smith’s iconic status will likely recover. More important than the future of Smith or Rock is the progress toward inclusivity and tolerance that has been made by the Academy; hopefully, that progress will continue in spite of this setback.