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Family, with all its messiness, takes spotlight at Oscars

An on-stage confrontation overshadows the Academy Awards

Will Smith cries as he accepts the award for best performance by an actor in a leading role at the Oscars on Sunday. Associated Press/Photo by Chris Pizzello

Family, with all its messiness, takes spotlight at Oscars

Sunday’s Academy Awards saw some surprising wins, but the most memorable event of the evening happened toward the end when actor Will Smith walked onto the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock’s mouth.

Before announcing the award for best documentary, Rock roasted a few audience members sitting close to the stage. He made a joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith’s wife, telling her he looked forward to seeing her in “G.I. Jane 2” — a reference to Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. Pinkett Smith has been open about her struggle with alopecia, or hair loss, a condition sometimes caused by an autoimmune disorder. She looked disgusted at the joke. Will Smith felt Rock had crossed the line, and he decided to cross a line of his own. After striking Rock, he twice shouted an expletive-laden warning that the comedian should refrain from talking about Pinkett Smith.

The altercation stunned witnesses. Viewers began debating on social media whether what they had just seen was real: The people involved were all actors. But Smith’s raw emotion seemed authentic, and Rock — after quipping, “That was … the greatest night in the history of television” — announced the winner with a subdued tone. The audience in the Dolby Theatre was just as confused as viewers at home. During a commercial break, many attendees approached a weeping Smith, including Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry, seemingly urging him to regain his composure. Everyone spent the next half-hour tensely waiting to see if Smith would win his first Oscar and wondering what would happen if he did.

Smith did indeed win best actor for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the loving yet difficult and infuriating father of tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams. He wept throughout his riveting acceptance speech. Instead of apologizing immediately, Smith justified himself by beginning his speech, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family.” For the next five minutes, he talked about the calling God had put on his life to protect certain individuals and said Denzel Washington warned him that “at your highest moment the devil comes for you.” He eventually apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which presents the annual awards, and his fellow nominees, but he didn’t mention Rock. He ended by saying, “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father — just like they said — I look like the crazy father just like they said about Richard Williams.” (On Monday afternoon, Smith did issue a statement apologizing to Rock, admitting “I was out of line and I was wrong.”)

Smith’s win for King Richard wasn’t the only instance of a film highlighting the importance of family winning big. In the lead-up to Sunday’s ceremony, most people expected Jane Campion’s western psychological drama, The Power of the Dog, to run away with the night, but the night’s biggest winner was CODA, a film about deaf parents who grapple with their changing relationship with their hearing child. CODA won in each of the three categories it was nominated in, including best picture. Kenneth Branagh won the Academy Award for best original screenplay for Belfast — his first Oscar. Belfast was inspired by Branagh’s own childhood and his family’s response to Ireland’s Troubles. Disney’s Encanto, a heartfelt movie about the love and pain associated with being part of a family, claimed the Oscar for best animated feature.

All of this, however, was overshadowed by Smith’s behavior. Some members of the academy reportedly felt his words of protection during his Oscar acceptance speech sounded hollow after witnessing him assault a fellow actor. And some comedians expressed fears that Smith’s actions would embolden more assaults from audience members.

“Now we all have to worry about who wants to be the next Will Smith in comedy clubs and theaters,” tweeted comedian Kathy Griffin, who has spent much of her career making jokes at celebrities’ expense.

Others, including comedian and actress Tiffany Haddish, supported Smith. “When I saw a Black man stand up for his wife. That meant so much to me,” Haddish told People. “And maybe the world might not like how it went down, but for me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen because it made me believe that there are still men out there that love and care about their women, their wives.”

Collin Garbarino

Collin is WORLD's Arts and Culture Editor. He is a World Journalism Institute, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and Louisiana State University graduate, and he teaches at Houston Baptist University. Collin resides with his wife and four children in Sugar Land, Texas.



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