This year’s Oscars had a slightly chaotic air to them from the start, with awards choppily edited in from earlier in the night, three hosts awkwardly trading off zingers, and bizarre fan-voted prizes given to the films of Zack Snyder. But nothing tonight, or in the 94-year history of the Academy Awards, could have prepared viewers for what happened during the presentation of Best Documentary Feature. Chris Rock, on hand to present the award, made a joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith (“Jada, I love you. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.”). In response, her husband, Will Smith, marched up to the stage, struck Rock in the face, and walked back to his seat, shouting, “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”
The exchange was, without hyperbole, the most shocking moment in Oscars history. It made the pronouncement of the wrong Best Picture winner in 2017, or David Niven’s pinpoint mockery of an onstage streaker, seem like no big deal. Rock stayed calm but appeared stunned, stating, “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” and standing motionless for what felt like hours. The sound dropped out of the U.S. broadcast feed, though the camera did cut to Smith verbally rebuking him. Maybe even more surreal was the effort to then get the show back on track. Questlove emotionally accepted an award for his documentary, Summer of Soul, immediately afterward, and other categories soon followed, but the mood in the Dolby Theatre was reportedly quite tense.
It was unsettling enough that Smith, one of the most famous actors alive, had done such a thing, even if you’re armed with the context that Jada Pinkett Smith has alopecia. But even stranger was that he was widely expected to take the spotlight again in about 15 minutes to receive a Best Actor trophy for his performance in King Richard, as the father of Serena and Venus Williams. And indeed he did, standing on stage in tears and delivering a speech that was emotional, uncomfortable, and undeniably riveting.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said, referring to his character. “In this time in my life, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.” He noted that his fellow nominee Denzel Washington had come over to counsel him after the incident, saying, “In your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Smith apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees (not, seemingly, to Rock, who has made fun of Pinkett Smith on the Oscars stage before), but there was defensiveness to his words, too. “Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”
The moment will surely be dissected for years on end, both in the context of Oscars history and Smith’s career, coming as it did on a night that was supposed to be the pinnacle of his career, a true Hollywood coronation. Though it might be presented as a low point for the Academy Awards, it was also a completely compelling one, a particularly violent reminder of the strange possibilities of live television. After a year when the Oscars have dreamed up new gimmicks to draw in more viewers, this ceremony will now be defined by a moment nobody could have planned.