At the 2022 Oscars, presenter and comedian Chris Rock made a joke toward the actress and wife of Will Smith, Jada Pinkett. Rock said, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2 can’t wait to see you,” seemingly about her short haircut and the GI Jane movie in which actress Demi Moore sported a buzz cut. While Will Smith laughed, I believe seeing his wife rolling her eyes in disgust caused him to react. Will Smith, who was projected to win the Oscar for best male actor of the year for his role as Richard Williams in King Richard, walked on stage and slapped Chris Rock. For a minute, Chris Rock appeared stunned, and so did I as a viewer. Both men are comedians, and I was wondering was this a scripted incident to bring hype to the Oscars.
As the night went on, we soon discovered the altercation was not a joke. Will Smith went on stage, slapped Chris Rock, sat back down in his seat, told Chris Rock to keep his wife’s name out of his fucking mouth, and walked back on stage to accept the Oscar for best actor about fifteen minutes later. Will Smith apologized to the Academy during his tearful speech and said, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. Making this film I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I ever met. I got to protect Saniyya and Demi, the two actresses that played Venus and Serena. I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.” (Will Smith has since issued a statement apologizing to Chris Rock.)
Many on social media quickly constructed a narrative that Will Smith defended his wife because she has alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes extreme hair loss. Others on social media chose to call out Will Smith’s behavior stating that violence is never the answer.
To be honest, no one knows what Will Smith was thinking at that moment. As much as people may speculate online, no one knows what Will Smith was feeling at that moment except for Will Smith. However, after watching the incident repeatedly, I begin to focus on the physical distance from his front-row seat to the stage. What would compel Will Smith to walk that distance and slap Chris Rock? I wondered about the weight that Will Smith was carrying on his shoulders with every single step. Weight that didn’t just appear on Oscar night. Weight that didn’t occur because of a joke. Weight that, to the naked eye, many people would never know that he was carrying. Will Smith spoke about being called to protect his family and others in his acceptance speech. I wondered who was protecting Will Smith? Who is looking out for Will? Who has Will’s back? Who had Will’s back enough at that moment to say, “Pause. Don’t do this. This is a moment that you are going to regret.” Who loves Will enough to stand in the gap for Will? Sometimes we need people in our lives that will save us from ourselves.
In 2020 we watched Will Smith and his wife sit at the Red Table and discuss her relationship with singer August Alsina. The hurt and pain on Will Smith’s face were almost tangible, even through a computer screen. The expression of hurt and sorrow on Will’s face quickly became a meme used on every social media platform. He became the face of someone taking a loss. From his autobiography, we have read about Will Smith feeling tortured by the connection his wife had with 2Pac, stating that he felt insecure and cowardly in comparison to the late rapper. When Will Smith discusses the abuse his mother endured at the hands of his father, he feels inadequate that he didn’t stand up to his father as his younger brother Harry did.
While I am unsure what Will is dealing with, I believe it is much deeper than what we saw on Sunday. The incident on Sunday was the fruit. If Will Smith wants to heal, he must deal with the roots. It seems to me that Will Smith has a lot of unresolved issues that he needs to confront. In his decades-long career, Will Smith has laughed through many things. There are times that humor is used as a mask. It made me wonder how many things are Black men simply laughing through while sweeping their pain under the rug? As Will Smith stated in his Oscar speech, “I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse, and you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you, and you gotta smile, and you gotta pretend like that‘s okay.”
What happened at the Oscars speaks to a more significant issue for me. Unlike many of my peers, I am not one to prescribe Will Smith’s actions to “protecting Black women.” In my opinion, this had nothing to do with protecting Black women but the brokenness inside of Will Smith that he has not dealt with. It speaks to a more significant issue for me about the brokenness of Black men. I believe we do Black men a disservice during this moment when we construct a narrative around them that isn’t centered on healing. We do Black men a disservice when we justify actions that I believe are rooted in internal hurt. It is a disservice because we are once again pretending that we do not see the pain. The easy narrative is dismissing a more prominent issue- the mental health of Black men and boys. Black men and boys are often forgotten people when it comes to mental health and self-care. We pretend as if we do not notice the cracks in Black men all while they are shattering before us. On Sunday, I believe Will Smith’s cracks were showing and if we are honest with ourselves, the cracks have been showing. And many of us didn’t take the time to pause and honestly think about what happened but went with a narrative that made us feel good. We made it about us and Black women and protecting Black women all while Will Smith continued to break.
I am tired of Black men shattering before me. I have seen it too many times. A very promising young man in my city, a good friend of mine is now facing an attempted murder charge because we didn’t recognize the shattering. Our homes are filled with Black men that are shattered. Our school system doesn’t know how to deal with Black boys that are shattering. Entire industries profit from Black men that are shattering. How long until we deal with the shattering? Aren’t you tired of picking up pieces? According to a 2019 report released by the Congressional Black Caucus says that death by suicide among Black youth is rising faster than any other racial group. Suicide ranked as the 3rd leading cause of death in Black men from ages 15-24 and Black men are four times more likely to die by suicide than Black women. Aren’t you tired of saying if only someone knew? It is happening in front of your eyes.
How many Black men pretend that they are okay when they are not okay? How many Black men are trying to smile through the pain? How many Black men spend years swallowing down sadness, pretending they are fine? How many Black men choke back tears because they fear being seen as weak? How many Black men succumb to drugs and alcohol because a substance is the only thing to take the pain away, even if only for a few moments? How many Black men are silent when their souls are screaming inside? Where is the outlet for Black men to say I am hurting? Where is the industry built around the self-care of Black men? Where is their pathway to healing? How do we allow Black men to face their pain? We must work to create space for Black men to be seen and heard, to allow them space to be vulnerable without judgment. If we are going to construct narratives, let us build narratives that tell Black men that crying isn’t weakness, that hurting is part of being human, that protecting Black women doesn’t always mean violence. Teach Black men that to love anyone, you must love yourself first, and that starts by confronting your past so that you are in a position to love fully, honestly, and openly.
I am so tired of seeing Black men in pieces. I am not celebrating the fragments of Black men.
What I witnessed on that stage was the cracking. I am exhausted seeing Black men in pieces. We must find a way for Black men to face the shattering. I wait for the day we work toward and celebrate Black men becoming whole.