By now you’ve heard about Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars after Rock told a bad joke related to Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia.
I’m less interested in talking about The Slap™ however and more interested in talking about something that happened mere moments later. A photo captured Will Smith being spoken to by Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry a few feet away from the Oscars stage during the first commercial break that came after the altercation.
There’s not much known to the public about what was said during the conversation aside from what Smith said during this acceptance speech when told the audience that Washington said “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Reportedly Washington also went to comfort Pinkett Smith after speaking with Smith.
It's a moment that’s gotten lost in all the chaos of the discourse that’s been generated after the events that unfolded. A moment of tenderness and love that resembles so much of what’s missing from the current conversation around Smith’s actions.
Regardless of how you feel about Smith’s action – disappointed, elated, angry, bemused – I’ve been frustrated about certain reactions that have fixated on wanting the actor to receive carceral punishment. Many people both in and outside the legal system view hitting someone without physical provocation to be illegal, punishable by imprisonment or at least some form of state sanctioned penalty such as probation or community service. But the calls to incarcerate Smith seem to ignore the fact that Rock has reportedly already declined to press charges against Smith, thus begging the question: who is it that we are protecting by insisting on carceral solutions if the person harmed here is not interested in pursuing any legal recourse?
The supposed violence people seem to be reacting to is not even the violence that allows for Rock to make a joke minimizing Jada’s health and using it as comedic fodder for a (mostly) white audience. The harm they’re reacting to has even less to do with Smith’s hand swiftly connecting to Rock’s face. It’s about forcing people to contend with impolite emotions and reactions in public. It’s the violence of violating the rule of civility in the face of oppression that white institutions such as the Oscars cloak themselves in. It’s evident by how many people have suggested that Smith should’ve just confronted Rock behind the scenes instead of on stage for all to see. Or how people who claim “violence is never the answer” can so easily suggest an inherently violent place like prison as a solution for every single problem that arises in our society. “Prisons do not disappear social problems, they disappear human beings,” as Angela Davis wrote.
If a Black man who has had a professional and personal reputation of being one of the nicest men in Hollywood for over the course of his three-decade career can immediately be villainized, I shudder at the thought of the way people are treating the Black boys and Black men in their everyday lives with considerably less social and monetary capital. Even the way white people continue to reconfigure Rock as a white person (“what if he were Betty White?!” What if he were Bob Saget?!”) in their supposed defense of Rock shows the limits of their concern and that they can’t even summon sympathy for the Black man that they’re claiming was harmed without casting themselves as the victims.
People struggle to imagine what accountability looks like without prisons but we must. Accountability in this situation could look like Smith, Pinkett-Smith, and Rock coming together to have a private conversation about what transpired and then bringing it to a public platform like Pinkett-Smith’s talk show Red Table Talk to have a discussion about alopecia, as well as ableism and misogynoir in comedy. And sometimes accountability looks like being pulled to the side by an elder like Washington that will gently but firmly correct you. Accountability is an act of love and community. And Sunday night showed us a brief glimpse of what that looks like.