The Academy announced a ten-year ban on Will Smith from attending its events after Smith slapped Chris Rock during a live telecast of the 2022 Oscar’s ceremony. Rock had joked about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. The Academy also praised Rock for his composure, vaguely suggesting an assumption that Rock could have slapped back. The Academy claimed to be “unprepared for the unprecedented.” I suspect not everyone found what happened entirely unprecedented. I suspect that some recognized something familiar about the Oscar ceremony and the Academy’s response. The ceremony evokes Norman Denzin’s characterization of Hollywood’s representing of “diversity” for White audiences during the 1990s. He found Hollywood mixed negative stereotypes and positive images in films where “good and bad dark-skinned others could do battle with one another.”
In a forthcoming article in Jump Cut, I propose that film critics, distributors, exhibitors, educators, and makers might consider listening to students around the world to contribute to the ongoing work of decolonizing our collective minds. I draw inspiration from South African students who protested in spring 2015 in the Rhodes Must Fall movement. “All Rhodes lead to colonisation,” they made clear to anyone who had not been paying attention, since the name of Cecil Rhodes is beyond redemption. So too might be Oscar. I also draw upon the Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi’s Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement in the United States, which was renewed globally after Darnella Frazier’s mobile-phone video presented evidence of George Floyd’s murder that summer. Floyd’s murder was not “just another” (unjust) murder of a Black man by White police. His murder was documented, tried; perpetrators were found guilty. Smith’s slap was also captured on camera, not by an eyewitness, but on a live telecast. What Frazier’s video and the Oscar telecast share is images of Black pain within White systems. Now might be the time to reflect whether Oscar might also be implicated in structural violence. There may be no more redemption for Oscar than Rhodes.
Oscar is notorious for awarding Black actors when they perform negative stereotypes. On film, negative stereotypes affect entire groups, whereas positive images stand as exceptional individuals, as Ella Shohat Robert Stam argued. Negative stereotypes are hard to dislodge; positive images, fairly useless. Positive images function like the tokenism that Sharon Willis calls “guest figures,”—that Black judges, lawyers, police officers, and teachers, who re-centers Whiteness by representing and serving the White-centric state and its laws. They are exceptional for their very banality. The Oscar ceremony seems much like the films that Denzin describes. Rock and Smith doing battle with one another over Pinkett Smith. Everything about the ceremony was precedented—almost predictable. Hollywood’s negative stereotypes and positive images displayed on the ceremony stage as on silver screen.
I did not watch the telecast of this year’s ceremony. I had forgotten that the awards were taking place. I learned about Smith walking onto the Oscar stage, slapping (“punching” in the early White-centric media reports) Rock for ridiculing Pinkett Smith in a “G.I. Jane joke.” News and social media ignited with snap judgments against Rock and Smith, support for Pinkett Smith, but also her re-victimization in memes that compared her short hair with Oscar’s bald head. Pinkett Smith had been forthcoming about alopecia, much like U.S. Congressperson Ayanna Pressley, but Pinkett Smith’s own seething eyeroll received less attention from White-centric media. Smith said the word “fuck” in his post-slap response to Rock’s joke. U.S. broadcasting polices such words since they might damage the reputation of the corporations and companies that sponsor the ceremony’s telecast. Such language is policed since it might teach children how to use it. Microaggressions against Black women are not policed on media, nor are mobilizations of racist stereotypes that Black men must navigate daily. As BLM has made perfectly clear, it is dangerous to drive while Black, buy candy or cigarettes while Black, and even sleep in one’s own bed while Black in the United States. In fact, White-centric media focused on policing Rock and Smith, labelling them as examples of “toxic masculinity” that required punishment.
It seems that the entire incident reflects exactly what Hollywood and Oscar represent. It was the kind of buzz that could be manipulated to minimize damage to the brand. It explicitly exploited Smith, Rock, and Pinkett Smith, not only over the past two weeks but over their entire careers—and the careers of other Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) actors and filmmakers before them. It implicitly exploits future generations. As long as Oscar stands, violence will continue. It feeds into a larger system of exploitation and monetization of violence and pain, humiliation and punishment.
The sensationalist YouTube channel Film Streak, for example, offer “the latest spill from Hollywood.” In the week following the jab, slap, and seething eyeroll, it posted numerous tabloid-style videos that demonize Pinkett Smith, Rock, and Smith. One posted on 02 April 2022, includes the misleading clickbait-style title “‘Not Fair!’ Will Smith Reacts To LOSING His Oscar After Slapping Chris Rock” and invites users to comment on whether Smith should be punished and, if so, what their preferred punishment of him might be. It suggested stripping him of his Oscar, banning or suspending him from the Academy, or denying him the job of presenting next year’s award. The White female voice performs being woke (a neoliberal appropriation of a term that once meant socially aware) by emphasizing than she endorses “consequence culture,” not “cancel culture” (a reactionary conservative expression that seeks to ridicule calls to boycott perpetrators of violence, their enablers and sponsors), whilst amplifying (another neoliberal term for capitalizing on the work of others, often without understanding the pain involved in such work) the spectacle of judging Smith rather than considering that Hollywood is racist and sexist—and Oscar epitomizes as much.
But it was not only clickbait media that sensationalized and monetized the situation. In an interview for NBC Nightly News, a White-male reporter from Indiewire raised doubt that anyone would want to work with Smith again. Smith’s slap in response to Rock’s jab at Pinkett Smith’s hair was elevated to the status of Tarana Burke’s Me Too Movement on sexual abuse and harassment. Me Too got heavy traction in Hollywood because it is notoriously misogynist, sexist, predatory, and violent—exemplified in the “cancelling” of White men in front of the camera, including Louis C.K., Matt Lauer, Charlie Rose, and Kevin Spacey. Me Too also focused attention on predatory White men behind the camera, including Harvey Weinstein, who was even ousted from the Academy.
White-centric media mostly saw the jab, slap, and seething eyeroll as spectacle for its own pleasure, which is Hollywood’s custom. The pain of Pinkett Smith, Rock, and Smith became a moment of visual pleasure for Oscar. In early reporting, speculations flew that Academy had staged everything in a desperate effort to save the lackluster awards ceremony’s dismal ratings. Such conspiracy theories, however, are less interesting than Oscar’s silence. It is not silence in the sense of its belated punishment after non-action. It is the silence about the context of what took place at the ceremony. It is a silence about structural and institutional racism that has historically profiled Black men as violent and structural and institutional racism that assumed that Black women’s hair is a subject for personal opinions by non-Black people. Smith’s slap might not have been audible on the ceremony’s telecast, but it made the Academy’s silence over Rock’s joke at Pickett Smith’s expense resounded loudly. The slap exposed the silence.
Silence is what Oscar has always done, what it was created to do. Deflect, deflect, deflect. Focus on the individual, not the issue, which is, of course, the central premise of Hollywood filmmaking with its exceptional heroes, capable to overcome all measures of obstacles by sheer self-determination and perseverance. There is almost never a need for collective action since such stories might inspire the countless, underpaid, freelance workers, who make the production of Hollywood films possible, to rise up against the system that exploits them. Oscar amplifies Hollywood’s manipulations by rewarding exceptional performances of exceptional individuals, who heroic acts helps disassociate inequalities and injustices from their social context. Hollywood does not reward social movements, particularly ones driven by collective action—and especially if the collective action organizes BIPOC.
Hollywood largely rewards Black actors when they perform Hollywood’s own negative stereotypes. Smith’s award for his performance in King Richard (USA, 2021; dir. Reinaldo Marcus Green), a biopic on Richard Williams, the father and coach of Venus and Serena Williams, that evening partly challenged Hollywood’s and Oscar’s negative stereotypes for Black men. Yet it did as much in the kind of singular positive images that likely contributes to the reduction of Black men and women to entertainment, including professional sports, rather than politics, evident in Oscar’s silence when Spike Lee and Ava Duvernay made biopics on two of the most important figures of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma (UK/USA/France, 2014) and Malcolm X in Malcolm X (USA, 1992). These men were exceptional, but they represented broad social movements and collective action, which is taboo in Hollywood—and, frankly, the United States as a whole.
In the article, I argue that Oscar should be defined from what it is: an award for and by White people. Oscar does not like Black politics unless it involves music that White people can also enjoy. Even the win of the ceremony’s musical director Questlove for his documentary Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (USA, 2021), on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, did not alter Oscar’s narrow view of ways that Black culture can be portrayed. Social action must be mediated through music, which can be enjoyed without awareness of its political significance. Ariana DeBose also became the first “openly queer” Afro-Latinx actor to win an acting award, though in a film that is hardly unproblematic. Celebrating her win as breakthrough echoes celebrating Halle Berry becoming the first Black woman to win for leading actress almost 60 years after Hattie McDaniel became the first to win for supporting actress. A decade after winning, Berry reflected that new roles did not open for people like her, as everyone had imagined. Berry and McDaniel were rewarded in part for portraying roles that the Academy found suitable for Black women.
It seems that Oscar might actually be less invested in Black joy than Black pain for reasons beyond structural and institutional racism. The ceremony traditionally includes monologues in which the host or hosts ridicule actors and directors. The pressure on Rock to ridicule others for the Academy’s amusement is part of a larger problem—Hollywood is a hostile environment—that becomes most obvious when the target of ridicule is one of the few Black women in the room. When Meryl Streep is ridiculed, she is never targeted for her body, only for her star persona. Moreover, Streep and other White women can take comfort that many of their fellow White women will go home with an Oscar. In fact, only White men are more likely to do take one home. When Pinkett Smith and Smith heard Rock’s joke, they can take no such comfort. Under almost every camera and telecast live, they react. It is part of the price they pay to make a living from acting while Black. Pinkett Smith gave a seething eye roll. Smith got up and gave Rock a slap, followed by his threats to Rock from the table. All White eyes (and cameras) also fixed themselves on the Black people, conspicuously seated at the table at the center of the stage. Zandeya seemed to want to disappear into the virtual world of social media by looking at her mobile. Lupita Nyong’o smiled uncomfortably.
Perhaps the White-serving institution of Oscar inadvertently orchestrated yet another spectacle wherein Black people will be punished—but the system is not scrutinized for its potential role. This assertion is not an excuse for the actions or statements for anyone at the ceremony. It is a way to open a questioning of why such actions and statement might have taken place—a questioning of how Black pain is produced by Hollywood more often than Black joy. For me, as a non-Black and non-viewer of the Oscar ceremony’s telecast, Smith’s warnings could have been directed at the Academy and at Oscar, as much as at Rock. His pain was obvious, as was Rock’s and Pickett Smith’s.
Indeed, this year’s ceremony offers palpable insights into how Oscar can also be a moment of humiliation or a moment that triggers past pain over ongoing social and interpersonal violence. In the article, I cite Pinkett Smith’s statements in 2016 when she refused give away her cultural capital to Oscar. “Should people of color refrain from participating all together? People can only treat us in the way in which we allow,” she said; “Begging for acknowledgement, or even asking, diminishes dignity, and diminishes power, and we are a dignified people, and we are powerful, and let’s not forget it.” I don’t for a minute think that she forgot what she said eight years ago. She likely is even more adamant in her convictions. Nor do I think her attendance this year was begging for acknowledgement. Had she skipped, reporters and commentators would have made insidious speculations about not being at the table with her husband.
Smith’s subsequent resignation from the Academy might be followed by Pinkett Smith’s own resignation. Perhaps a “Blaxit” from the Academy and its Blaxploitation-like manipulation of Black people into the spectacle of “Black-on-Black violence” might encourage more investment in awards for and by Black people, such as the NAACP Image Awards from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Black Reel Awards from the Foundation for the Augmentation of African-Americans in Film, and BET Awards from the Black Entertainment Television. The capitalist excuse that more “visibility” for Black actors and filmmakers from Oscar awards will bring greater possibility for equity and justice within Hollywood are difficult to support. In 2002, the second edition of the BET Awards added a Humanitarian Award, which awards contributions to society, including charity in the absence of social funding for agencies and institutions that forward social justice and racial equality. Since 1967, the NAACP Image Awards has awarded outstanding performances according to criteria that are informed by Black experiences. Such awards might not be perfect—or free from controversy and even scandals. Indeed, they operate according to a similar notion of competition that creates winners and losers. Such awards do however have expertise in evaluating Black talent in the context of Black experiences, including ones in Hollywood and at the Oscar ceremony—and this expertise is something that Oscar will never have.
In reality, neither Smith nor Rock is good or bad. They are human. The ceremony revealed as much. It also revealed the pressure placed on Black men in Hollywood, perhaps more than the toxic masculinity than onlookers diagnosed. And it revealed the extra scrutiny of what Black men say or do, a corollary to the invasive scrutiny of Black women’s hair. Nonetheless some onlookers were upset that the Smith’s slap of Rock’s face overshadowed the desire by “good” White people to celebrate Oscar’s “diverse” winners, which were intended to be an opportunity for the Academy to raise its prestige as a potentially post-racist institution. These “good” White people felt aggrieved that their opportunity for self-congratulatory joy in witnessing what they imagined could only be Black joy since Oscar could never be associated with Black pain to them. They likely did not reflect upon collective complicity with what occurred on stage. They wanted to feel good about themselves for working incrementally to open Oscar’s inclusivity to more “diverse” people.
The title to Jesse Algeron Rhines’s book, Black Film/White Money (1996), is another way to decode Oscar. Like blaxploitation films from the 1970s, Hollywood appropriates and exploits Black culture in ways to generate White profits. Hollywood trades in an interplay of negative stereotypes and positive images of BIPOC, as well as working-class, physically and mentally “disabled,” LBGTQ+, and “foreign” people—and Oscar reflects as much. The academy elected Cheryl Boone Issacs as its first a Black president to expand membership and implement incremental quotas after April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite exposed the Academy’s preferences for White actors and filmmakers. Issacs’s expertise lies in marketing and public relations. She spins perceptions. She hired a Black producer for the 2022 ceremony, who hired other Black talent to produce the ceremony. Most of the voting membership, however, remained White and male and over 60 years of age.
It is hardly surprising that tension escalated at the ceremony. It is hardly surprising that it erupted in Hollywood’s cherished spectacle of “Black-on-Black” violence. The Academy resolved the situation for itself by banning Smith for causing it embarrassment and by praising Rock for saving it from embarrassment—all of which occurred after Smith had apologized to Rock and resigned from the Academy. The Academy punished Smith to save its reputation, regardless his reputation. Its action is little more than an attempt at self-preservation—“restoring trust in the Academy,” in its own words—sounds performative and insubstantive, as does its hope for the future: “We also hope this can begin a time of healing and restoration for all involved and impacted.” After 96 years of Oscar, I think that it is too late for such platitudes.
1. As cited in Clive Davis, “Academy Bans Will Smith from Oscars for 10 Years,” Variety (08 April 2022): https://variety.com/2022/awards/news/oscars-will-smith-consequences-chris-rock-1235228010/. ↑
2. Norman K. Denzin, Reading Race: Hollywood and the Cinema of Racial Violence (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 2002): 6. ↑
3. Ella Shohat and Robert Stam, Unthinking Eurocentrism: Multiculturalism and the Media (New York: Routledge, 1994/2014). ↑
4. Sharon Willis, High Contrast: Race and Gender in Contemporary Hollywood Film (Durham: Duke University Press, 1997): 5. ↑
5. As cited in Christie D’Zurilla, “Jada Pinkett Smith to Boycott Oscars: ‘Begging for Acknowledgement … Diminishes Dignity’,” Los Angeles Times (18 January 2016), https://www.latimes.com/entertainment/gossip/la-et-mg-jada-pinkett-oscar-boycott-video-20160118-htmlstory.html. ↑
7. Algeron Rhines, Black Film/White Money (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1996). ↑
8. As cited in Davis,” Academy Bans.”. ↑