Why Did Will Smith Hit Chris Rock at the Oscars?


“Will Smith speaking at the 2017 San Diego Comic Con International, for “Bright”, at the San Diego Convention Center in San Diego, California.” Credit: Gage Skidmore

Kayla Katounas

The 94th Oscar Awards ceremony, which was aired live to an audience of over 16 million viewers, is shaping up to be one of the most memorable in years. It was a night of historic wins, but the most significant topic of conversation surrounding the event is comedian Chris Rock being slapped onstage by Will Smith, who is now an Academy Award winning actor.

Will Smith was sitting in the front row for the ceremony, placed close to the stage as a hopeful for one of the biggest awards of the night, the Academy Award for best actor in a leading role, for his portrayal of Richard Williams, father of tennis players Venus and Serena Williams in King Richard. Chris Rock was on stage to present the award for best documentary feature, which went to Summer of Soul, but one joke he made before announcing the winner caught the attention of Smith and his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Rock said “Jada, I love you, ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” a reference to Pinkett Smith’s shaved head and the 1997 film G.I. Jane, where the main character shaves her head.

Jada Pinkett Smith announced in 2018 that she has alopecia, a hair loss condition and the reason for her shaved hairstyle. By joking about her hair, Rock was also joking about her alopecia, which is naturally upsetting to Pinkett Smith, especially after an awards season full of jokes at the expense of her and her husband. In fact, earlier that night, Regina Hall, one of the three hosts for the event, joked about gathering single, attractive men for an imaginary COVID test, bringing to the stage actors such as Timothée Chalamet and Bradley Cooper, then she quipped “Will Smith, you’re married but you know what, you’re on the list and it looks like Jada approved you,” referring to the couple’s open marriage, which made headlines last year. This comes after they were joked about at both the BAFTAs and the SAG Awards recently.

Smith and Rock go way back, having known each other for almost three decades, starting when Chris Rock made a guest appearance on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air in 1995. Since then, the two have been connected in multiple ways, having both appeared in the short film Torrance Rises in 1999, then Rock presenting Smith with a Kids Choice Award in 2005, and both Chris Rock and Jada Pinkett Smith starring in the animated movie Madagascar the same year. Tensions may have started to flare at the Oscars in 2016, when Chris Rock acknowledged the couple in his monologue, mentioning Jada choosing to skip the ceremony, which she did to boycott the lack of diversity in the nominees, and Will’s lack of a nomination.

“It comes with the territory, but we gotta keep it moving.” Pinkett Smith replied when asked about the 2016 speech. “We got a lot of stuff we gotta handle, a lot of stuff going on in our world right now. We gotta keep it moving.” Clearly, the shocking slap at the 2022 Oscars may not have only been spurred by a single joke made in the moment, but by an influx of unappreciated comments.

Adding salt to the wound, Will Smith was named best actor for his role in King Richard only minutes after the slap. He gave a tearful acceptance speech, saying that “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” and “love will make you do crazy things,” drawing parallels to his own actions.

“I apologize to the Academy. I apologize to all my fellow nominees.” This apology noticeably left out Chris Rock. He then released an apology on his Instagram account on Tuesday, which declared “violence in all of its forms is poisonous and destructive… I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong.”

While this is definitely something that should be discussed and will be remembered, it should not overshadow the other memorable events of the night. West Side Story’s Ariana DeBose is the first openly queer woman of color to win an award in the best supporting actress category. She also thanked Rita Moreno, who won the same award for the same role in 1962. CODA also became the first film with a mostly deaf cast to win the award for best picture, and CODA star Troy Kotsur became the second deaf actor to win an acting award at the Oscars (for best supporting actor). This was a historic ceremony that is sure to be remembered for years to come.