In a series of special year-end roundtable discussions, The A.V. Club looks back at the stories that made the biggest impact on pop culture in 2022.
In March 2022, on stage at the Academy Awards, Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head. And then Will Smith slapped him. In terms of facts about what happened, that’s really all there is. But the resulting discourse has occupied the better part of this year, and figures to spill into 2023 as the next Oscar season ramps up. How we feel about the moment, and whether or not we think Smith’s actions were justified, are just some of the elements that keep this conversation alive. Here, A.V. Club staffers talk about the infamous slap and the public’s response.
Mary Kate Carr: Like any pop culture nerd I love when the Oscars can produce an enduring, memorable moment, but this one turned out like a monkey’s paw wish. I’m a Will Smith fan, so I hate that it came at the expense of overshadowing not just the work that he did last year but the work he put out this year as well.
Jack Smart: What I’ve fixated on since March 27, 2022—and I know I’m not the only one—is the dramatic irony of it all. Here’s a guy who works for decades building up a reputation, a brand, truly a legacy as one of Hollywood’s brightest stars and most accomplished Black trailblazers, only to see it all come crashing down with one unthinking impulse. And for that to happen moments, mere minutes before his hard-won apex of that long career, winning the best actor Oscar? Ibsen himself could never have scripted such a tragedy.
Matt Schimkowitz: In the moment, I thought it was a bit. My brain could not process Will Smith, the ultimate Hollywood nice guy, attacking Chris Rock on stage over such hack material. This has to be the most anyone has thought about G.I. Jane since, what, 1998? But the slap has to be the most surreal thing to happen at the Oscars at least since the Moonlight fiasco—though I think the most famous man in the room slapping the second most famous man in the room and then winning an Oscar 10 minutes later is something so truly outside the scope of what anyone thought could happen.
MKC: Moreso than the slap itself, the reaction to it has been fascinating to see unfold over the year. Anecdotally, we’ve talked in the office about how there appears to be a generational divide in the reaction—older viewers seem more scandalized and anti-Smith, while younger viewers seem quicker to forgive and more on his side. I definitely fall in the latter category, and I’m surprised when I read things like THR’s roundup of Oscar voters, how many people feel he still needs to be punished even now when, like you said, we’re almost a year out from the actual event.
Cindy White: Speaking as an older viewer (who doesn’t necessarily share that common opinion) I know what you mean. I definitely saw more younger people defending him afterwards. I’m not anti-Smith, but the word I’d use is disappointed. What a shame to compromise what would have been an otherwise triumphant moment when he won the Oscar later in the broadcast. The person I really felt bad for was Questlove, who also had a big win right after it happened, but who’s going to remember that now?
Drew Gillis: I was genuinely surprised to see the reaction when I tuned out of the ceremony and onto Twitter. At my Oscar party, we definitely had the initial reaction of “Was that scripted? What did I just watch?” and when Smith gave his speech, beginning with “Richard Williams was a fierce protector of his family,” the entire room cheered. Going online and seeing Judd Apatow being horrified because Smith could have killed Rock was so out of touch with the group of people I was with when it happened. Not to be especially crass, but I believe there’s truth to the expression “talk shit, get hit”—Chris Rock had been taking cheap shots at Jada for a while, and while it’s his job as a comedian to take shots, I don’t think comedians are above reproach. Of course, it was incredibly humiliating for both men, and you can argue that Smith’s punishment didn’t fit Rock’s crime, but I have to push back against the idea that comedians are beyond reproach.
JS: I’m also more fascinated by the response to the slap than the specifics of the incident itself. Maybe big, public cultural moments like this are Rorschach tests: Do you object to the negative consequences Will faced because it smacks of racial inequality? Do you have a no-tolerance policy about physical violence, as opposed to other forms of violence? Do you find it refreshing to see the polite veneer of public figures fall away to reveal real, human relatability—or put another way, do you just like drama?
MS: From my perspective, as a humble enjoyer of both of their work, the whole thing depressed me. Rock and Smith appeared so humiliated by the incident. Smith had this profound sense of “what the hell did I just do” and Rock a “what the hell happened.” There were some pictures of Rock at the after-party, and I just kept thinking about how embarrassed he must feel, having to relive the moment over and over, to know that everyone is thinking about it, and that everyone has an opinion about it. Despite them being two of these larger-than-life figures, it felt really humanizing to me. These are two people, one who was hurt by another’s actions and another who was hurt by their own actions. Everyone knows how that feels. When was the last time any celebrity did anything so relatable?
DG: He worked for decades specifically to brand himself as a Hollywood good guy and in one moment—one where I believe he was doing something resembling the right thing in defending his family—it all slipped away.
CW: Do you feel like the 10-year ban on Will Smith attending the Oscars was an appropriate response by the Academy, or extreme considering they haven’t punished others who have done far worse (though not during the ceremony)?
DG: One element that I think has been kind of left out of this conversation is that it literally was both men’s workplace. At least for me, I watch an award show and think of it as a bunch of famous friends hanging out, but as an actor, the Oscars are a work event. Morals, politics, everything else aside, if you were to slap your coworkers, there are repercussions. That’s the only lens through which I can really see the punishment that Smith received as appropriate.
MS: Eh. Smith gets a 10-year ban, but his Oscar will forever have an asterisk. I’m not going to pretend I know much about Smith, but to my mind, he’s a Tom Cruise: A guy that is so laser-focused on their goals that any hiccup can be catastrophic. He spoiled the moment he coveted for a very long time—at least two decades. That must really hurt.
JS: I get that the Academy felt they had to assertively do something in response to this news cycle-dominating thing. But to me it feels like it backfired. By implementing a ban of this extreme length (with our collective shrinking attention spans, a decade is a lifetime), they unwittingly laid bare their difference responses or lack thereof for others, as you’re getting at, Cindy.
Sacheen Littlefeather, who took the stage to decline Marlon Brando’s 1973 Oscar in an effort to bring attention to the industry’s unfair treatment of Native Americans, said the only reason John Wayne failed to physically attack her is because a whopping six men were restraining him. Where was his ban, Academy? Roman Polanski, who’d pleaded guilty to raping a minor in 1978, was expelled from Academy membership—but not until 2018, and in between, he won an Oscar. Or a more facetious example: how did Rob Lowe continue to have a career after the 1989 ceremony’s Disney-fied version of “Proud Mary” that was not only embarrassingly degrading, but even illegal? (Look it up, sheeple!)
CW: I love that you brought up the Rob Lowe debacle. What a low point for the broadcast. It’s also a good reminder that historically past Oscar ceremonies have hardly been epitomes of decorum, as the Academy would prefer us to believe. A streaker once ran across the stage on national television (his story and what happened to him after is another fascinating rabbit hole to dive down into)! The point is, when faced with a choice to take a drastic or a measured step against Will Smith, they opted for the drastic one. Read into that what you will.
JS: It bums me out that this incident will go down in history as the 2022 Oscar ceremony’s big headline, the forever highlight, and I remember how wild it was wrapping my head around that fact as I frantically tweeted from The A.V. Club’s Twitter account. I wish Chris Rock hadn’t told that (extremely dumb) joke, and that Will hadn’t crafted such a tragic irony for himself. The fact that I’m referring to him as Will, and not as I’m maybe supposed to in this official article as Smith, is a testament to how central a figure he is in the collective consciousness. He’s like an uncle, a familiar figure you love to see or check in on. If the question is do I feel bad for the guy, yes, I do.
[This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.]