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Will Smith, Chris Rock, and the slap heard round the world

At a time when civility is in short supply, Hollywood has its tone-deaf moment.

Will Smith hits presenter Chris Rock on stage while presenting the award for best documentary feature at the Oscars on Sunday in Los Angeles.Chris Pizzello/Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

It’s true. Those Hollywood folks aren’t like thee and me.

There is a school of thought that the time has come and gone for the endless round of self-congratulatory awards shows that culminate — finally — on Oscar night.

The over-the-top dresses and jewels, the mostly strained and awkward words of thanks, the lapel ribbons — there’s always a ribbon, right? This year’s was blue and yellow — a small way to take note of the horror that is the war in Ukraine and the 10 million or so Ukrainians displaced from their homes.

That and the moment of silence will buy you what exactly? Yes, that moment included an on-screen appeal “to support Ukraine in any way you are able. #StandWithUkraine.” But might this also have been the year for the organizers to forgo those gift baggies for the already fabulously wealthy nominees — this year valued at $137,000 each — and donate the money to relief efforts?

But the war is far away and Sunday night it was the slap heard round the world that consumed Hollywood


Comedian Chris Rock, still reeling from that slap delivered by Will Smith, was almost right when he said, “That was the greatest night in the history of television.” Because it was, well, great television if by “great” you mean that moment everyone will be talking about the next day — horrifying in that train wreck kinda way.

And who couldn’t lip read the full text of Smith’s tirade as the camera zeroed in even as the audio was cut? Clearly someone in the broadcast booth knew “great” television when they saw it. (The unedited video with audio of the incident was widely available online.)

But the worst was yet to come. Smith, as predicted, won the Oscar for best actor, got the requisite standing ovation from a crowd that had just watched him slap another performer silly on live TV and then applauded as Smith rambled on attempting to drape himself in the mantle of a great protector of his wife and all of womankind, comparing himself to the man he portrayed in that Oscar-winning performance, the father of Serena and Venus Williams.


“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said, adding that “at this time in my life, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.”

So it was God who called on him to slap Chris Rock. Seriously?

For those who skipped Sunday night’s festivities, Rock made a not that funny “G.I. Jane” joke about Smith’s wife’s shaved head. Turns out the stunning Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia, which she has talked about publicly, and was clearly not happy with the reference.

What is not known is whether Chris Rock knew that.

But what happens in Hollywood, and the fact that Smith’s peers were clearly willing to overlook an unprecedented lack of civility in their midst, doesn’t always stay in Hollywood — and a damned good thing that is. The fact that Smith and the missus spent the rest of the evening partying didn’t help the situation.

Even Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, who also has alopecia, initially tweeted and then deleted: “#Alopecia nation stand up! Thank you #WillSmith. Shout out to all the husbands who defend their wives living with alopecia in the face of daily ignorance & insults.”


In the calm, clear light of morning, the slap didn’t look so cool and brave after all.

And then there was this from Jaden Smith, one of Will and Jada’s children, who tweeted simply: “And That’s How We Do It.”

Isn’t that the lesson everyone wants their kids to take away from all this? Unhappy with something someone says? Just take a whack at ’em.

At a time when civil discourse is in short supply, when too many Americans are already finding too many reasons to distrust one another, a slap on live TV isn’t just a slap. It’s a disgrace. But not nearly as disgraceful as the conduct of all those fools who gave a standing ovation to Hollywood’s newest bully.

Rachelle G. Cohen is a Globe opinion writer. She can be reached at rachelle.cohen@globe.com.