The Unreality of Will Smith’s Oscars Slap

What followed an unprecedented moment of violence was almost as surreal as the incident itself.

Image of Will Smith with overlayed scribbles
Getty ; The Atlantic

“Art imitates life,” Will Smith said in his acceptance speech last night after winning the Oscar for Best Actor for his performance in King Richard, a movie in which Smith plays a brilliant, irascible patriarch and a savvy showman. Smith wept as he spoke, and alluded to his personal struggles. He joked about his mother not wanting to attend the ceremony because she planned to watch with her knitting friends back in Philadelphia. “This is a beautiful moment,” he said. It would have been, if not for one thing: A little earlier during the Oscars broadcast, Smith had stalked onstage and slapped the comedian Chris Rock in front of millions of people, after Rock made a joke about Smith’s wife’s shorn head. (Jada Pinkett Smith has spoken openly about her alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss.) “Keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth,” Smith then shouted, twice, while a visibly stunned Rock tried to process what was happening.

He wasn’t the only one. Awards shows are not typically venues in which people expose their genuine, unfiltered selves. They’re an extension of paid performance, where everything down to the shade of a fingernail is planned months in advance. Smith surely knew he was the favorite to win the Oscar, his first, which made his stage invasion particularly surreal. It felt like a prearranged bit. Even Rock, shortly after being slapped, seemed exhilarated instead of disturbed. “Oh wow, wow,” he said, smiling and shaking his head. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” It wasn’t until Smith began yelling from the audience—his exact words bleeped out of ABC’s live U.S. broadcast—that Rock’s composure faltered. The comedian said something unintelligible. He paused and looked offstage. “That was a … Greatest night in the history of television.”

The media theorist Neil Postman observed that jokes and entertainment might one day undo our ability to perceive things properly, and Smith’s televised assault on Rock illustrated that thesis eerily well—offering a colossal WTF moment to digest and meme and tweet-then-delete dubious takes on into infinity. But for me at least, the moment also felt like a rupture, a glitch in the Matrix. It almost felt staged. It was too wild, too uncalibrated, and then too immediately and obviously smoothed out in figurative postproduction. One of the world’s biggest movie stars, a man whom audiences all over the country cheer every Fourth of July as he punches out an alien, hit another icon instead, in full public view. The surreality wasn’t limited to the fact that Smith’s reaction escalated at truly incomprehensible speed. (He laughed, at first, at Rock’s hokey and stupid crack that he couldn’t wait to see Pinkett Smith in G.I. Jane 2.) Or even to that moment of striking and unprecedented violence, which no one could dispute. It extended to the way that, with an audible whir, the machinery of Hollywood geared up to spin it into something more palatable, even while the ceremony was still happening.

It was unsettling to see Smith accept his Oscar—shortly after being counseled by Denzel Washington and his publicist—and receive a standing ovation. It was strange to hear him claim the mantle of a protector, and compare himself to his character Richard Williams, “a fierce defender of his family.” It was strange to watch him say he wanted to be “a vessel for love” and “an ambassador of that kind of love and care and concern,” right after the most flagrant outburst of violence in Oscars history. It was odd to see him declaring that “love will make you do crazy things,” while his wife regally nodded, and to laugh his gleeful, barking Will Smith laugh, that laugh, the kind any casual moviegoer could identify with their eyes closed, right after saying that he hoped the Academy would have him back. It was eerie to learn that Smith and his family danced the rest of the night away at the Vanity Fair party, the triumphant star clutching his statuette. All of it felt a little like an exercise in entertainment-industry gaslighting. Did we really see what we thought we saw? Did it matter?

Maybe not. Maybe the lines between reality and constructed entertainment have blurred beyond the point where they’re discernible anymore. Smith’s behavior was so extraordinary that it seemed, watching, as though he might be in crisis. It’s possible that his agitation over a dig at his wife stems from, as he writes in his 2021 memoir, Will, the trauma of his inability to protect his mother from his father’s violence as a child. (“Comedy defuses all negativity,” Smith writes, referring to his experience as a class clown at a predominantly white school in Philadelphia. “It is impossible to be angry, hateful, or violent when you’re doubled over laughing.”) But what will his actions manifest? Some kind of emotional breakthrough, the normalization of more violence, or simply more entertainment? There’s purportedly an eight-figure bidding war ongoing for the film rights to Smith’s book and the opportunity to turn his life story into a biopic. “Some feared that Will’s brutal honesty in his book could harm his reputation,” a source told The Sun. “But it’s done the opposite, and helped him connect with his audience like never before.” However it’s told, his story will need, after last night, some kind of addendum. But surely the right writer can figure out the angle.