Following the declaration that Smith will be banned from the Academy for ten years, Will Smith, Chris Rock, and the Academy may believe they can close the curtain on this dramatic chapter. However, there is far too much reliance on written statements, and there isn’t enough acknowledgement that multiple apologies from all parties are missing.
An Instagram post claiming he “accepts and respects the Academy’s judgment” is not the type of penance the general public, the industry, your colleagues and co-stars are expecting from Smith, who won best actor for his role as Serena and Venus Williams’ father in “King Richard.”
Rock shouldn’t be planning a standup comedy special about what happened, and his quiet on the subject has been deafening.
An appreciation to Rock for not exacerbating the situation or for not pushing Smith out of the room is merely the tip of the iceberg for the fundamental changes needed within the Academy to ensure the Oscars can endure until Smith’s “10-year sentence” is up.
Smith, on the other hand, isn’t the only bad guy in this scenario. There isn’t really a “good guy” in this story; instead, there are numerous people who made poor choices. Smith has been punished, but it does not free the Academy or Rock of their responsibilities or the need to make reparations to several parties.
The path to redemption must include an acknowledgement of all those who have been harmed or affected, making amends, and implementing measures to guarantee that lessons are learnt and applied to avoid future mistakes.
That list must include Jada Pinkett Smith, Joseph Patel, Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes, the Oscar hosts Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes, the telecast’s producers and staff, and every viewer in attendance and at home who was forced-fed the revisionist history and messaging that followed. No longer will you be able to hide behind well crafted statements and tweets. It’s past time for Smith, Rock, and the Academy to make direct reparations to all those who have been wronged. After this year’s telecast, no one is standing tall.
I’m not suggesting Smith’s sentence was excessive, but stepping up to a stage and slapping someone during a live broadcast was heinous. It’s a stain on the legacy of the few Black persons who have won lead actor or actress statuettes in 94 years, not just the crime of assault. Smith is only the fifth, but he’s become connected with what is undoubtedly the ceremony’s most bizarre moment.
While some may regard the Academy’s decision as overbroad, others may argue that it goes too far, the truth is that the Board of Governors had little choice given Smith’s resignation from the Academy on April 1. Smith was no longer susceptible to the Academy’s various censures or financial fines because he was no longer a member. If he had been an active member during Friday’s board meeting, he would almost certainly have been expelled from the Academy, albeit with a shorter restriction from future ceremonies.
The demands for the Academy to “take back” the trophy, or for Smith to return it himself, are ridiculous. The ballots had arrived, and the votes had been counted. There is no “undo” feature for the Academy Awards, and even if there was, it’s unlikely that a multiverse revisionist cross-correction of the 2021 best actor race would be near the top of the priority list.
What happens if Smith “returns” it? Do you want to re-engrave it with Benedict Cumberbatch’s (“The Power of the Dog”) or Andrew Garfield’s (“Tick, Tick… Boom!”) names? It would be unfair to two persons who had nothing to do with these events if either of them became a “Academy Award winner” with an asterisk (*) next to their names for the rest of their lives. What about the celebs who “refused” to accept their Oscar yet are still regarded “winners”? On the same night that John Wayne was reportedly detained by security personnel for attempting to assault the stage, Marlon Brando refused his statuette for “The Godfather” (1972), sending Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Where are the demands that he “return” his Academy Award for “True Grit” (1969)? Is it because it didn’t happen the night Smith won that it’s “apples and oranges,” or is perception and tarnished images enough punishment for Smith to bear for the rest of his life?
Although Harvey Weinstein (best picture for “Shakespeare in Love”) is incarcerated and Roman Polanski (director for “The Pianist”) is on the run after rapping a kid, let’s have the fifth Black actor in history return his Oscar because he slapped someone. That isn’t very rational.
When it comes to the possible repercussions for Smith, we can have a spirited debate about what was appropriate, but it all boils down to what the Board of Governors had the authority to impose. Members of the Academy’s leadership were disturbed by Smith’s resignation ahead of their originally scheduled April 18 meeting, according to multiple sources within the Academy and its Board. But, honestly, what other choice did he have after what appears to be a plainly incorrect account of what happened after “the slap”?
Smith was no longer just the guy who slapped Chris Rock on the air after the Academy made a statement saying it asked him to quit but he refused, which multiple sources have denied. He is now an enraged Black man who committed a heinous assault on someone, as well as a celebrity who refuses to leave a location because he believes he has a right to be there.
It may be argued that the Academy’s account of events did far more damage to Smith’s career and public reputation than the slap itself. It’s another instance of art imitating life, but not in the way Smith alluded to during his Oscar acceptance speech. It reminds me of Smith’s interview with actress Janet Hubert on HBO Max’s “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion,” which aired in 2020. “Words can kill,” Hubert tells Smith during their tearful debate about the events that led to her leaving the 1990s show. Everything, including my reputation, was taken away from me. I understand you were able to move on, but you’re well aware that in Hollywood, calling a Black woman problematic is the kiss of death.”
When the Academy says Smith “refused,” it needs to think about its actions. Then admit it, make amends, and do better in the future.
Still, AMPAS has additional problems that don’t start with Will Smith. His 10-year ban appears to send a message: you can be a bad person, even violent, within the boundaries of your business or home, make racist remarks, and even be accused of sexual misconduct, as long as it happens outside the Dolby Theatre on Oscar night.
There are dozens of problematic personalities among the Academy’s members who work for Hollywood studios and networks. They can, and do, however, attend the Academy Awards. The Academy’s Standards of Conduct were a good start in December 2017, but they now need to be improved. Multiple calls have been made to have Smith “tarred and feathered” professionally. So, how do you deal with the thorny individuals of your past while still putting in place a framework that makes the consequences for breaking the “Standards of Conduct” feel consistent?
What would have happened to Smith if he had been a member of the Academy at the time of the Board meeting? Smith was probably well aware that he was on the verge of being expelled from the Academy, a fate shared by only five people in history:
- Carmine Caridi was booted out in 2004 for sharing and duplicating VCR copies of screeners with Russell Sprague, best remembered for his role as Albert Volpe in the best picture winner “The Godfather Part II” (1974). Russell Sprague, who died of a suspected heart attack while awaiting sentencing and after Sony and Time Warner sued Caridi for copyright infringement, was turned in in exchange for immunity. Caridi was found not guilty of any misconduct.
- Harvey Weinstein, the Oscar-winning producer of “Shakespeare in Love” (1998), was expelled from the Academy in 2017 after the New York Times revealed decades of sexual harassment and rape. For his offenses, he is currently receiving a 23-year prison sentence.
- Bill Cosby, the Emmy-winning actor and comedian, was fired from his job in 2018, just a month after being convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to ten years in prison. Although his conviction has been reversed, his membership in the Academy has not been reinstated.
- Roman Polanski – The director was expelled from the Academy in 2018, 41 years after pleading guilty to having sexual relations with a minor. He escaped the United States after entering his plea and has remained a fugitive ever since. That didn’t stop the Academy from honoring him for directing “The Pianist” (2002), with Harrison Ford accepting the award on his behalf and personally delivering it to him in Europe.
- Adam Kimmel – The cinematographer’s history as a registered sex offender was uncovered by Variety. The Academy acted and threw out the director of photography who had worked on films like “Capote” (2005).
As society debates how to respond to celebrities who conduct unlawful acts, it’s important to remember how the public reacted to Smith’s actions and what the Academy leadership was asked to do. The critics of the “woke mindset” and “herd mentality” demanded that the Oscar winner’s blood be smeared for public display.
Smith made some egregious errors, but it isn’t all his fault. Despite being the “victim” of the slap, Chris Rock isn’t completely blameless in this situation. There have been rumors that Rock was unaware that Pinkett had alopecia, and if this is true, we’ll believe him. However, his joke about her bald head has prompted media analysts and consumers to recite the first amendment as a vow of fealty to the protection of free speech (regardless of Bill Maher’s vacuous views on the subject). They see Smith’s attack on Rock as a potentially dangerous precedent in the right to “speak whatever you want.” As much as people have used as justifications for characters like Dave Chappelle, Louis C.K., and others, comedy is not an untouchable creature unaffected by repercussions or criticism. You can’t just say whatever you want because you have the legal right to.
Words have repercussions, and they can be harmful. You never know what’s going on inside a person’s head. Because Jada was plainly hurt by the joke, it would be classy for him to apologize to her immediately.
After the slap, Rock made a derogatory joke when announcing “Summer of Soul” as the documentary winner. “Ahmir ‘Questlove’ Thompson and a bunch of four white dudes” won the Oscar, Rock stated at the time. Not only do all of the winners deserve to be named, but one of the producers, Joseph Patel, is South Asian, making him one of three winners on the same night. He didn’t make this joke on the spur of the moment after being slapped. The remark was made by Rock the day prior during rehearsal. The Academy expressed its “deep thanks to Mr. Rock for retaining his cool under unusual circumstances” in a statement.
It’s worth noting that Rock’s reaction may have exacerbated an already dire situation. Unfortunately, neither the Academy nor Rock’s camp have issued an individual apology to Pinkett nor Patel. There are a lot of apologies to be made, and there is no winner in this circumstance. They all lost that night, as far as I’m concerned. To be clear, this does not exonerate Smith of any responsibility for his actions.
Following the misconduct punishments, the Academy must address the perception of inconsistency. For example, convicted felons Weinstein and Polanski could theoretically attend a future ceremony if another participant invited them as guests. While the Academy can undoubtedly rest assured that the two will be embroiled in litigation and that its members would not jeopardize their careers by dragging them into the Dolby, Trump’s election has reminded us that no mistake, no matter how egregious, can be left to chance.
Consider the case of Bill Cosby. One month after his conviction, he was banished on the same day as Polanski. His conviction has now been reversed. Should his membership be reinstated now that he’s no longer a convicted felon? Of course not, but the company has exposed itself to potentially destructive (and stupid) decisions if the wrong people raise an objection. They’ll have to go over their policies again and make them very explicit.
Finally, there is the duty of the general public and social media commenters, who should do their best to accommodate for mistakes that are only troublesome in retrospect. Others’ acts during previous ceremonies, such as Adrien Brody kissing Halle Berry against her will after winning best actor, and even the decision not to remove Smith from the room, have sparked heated discussion. The Academy has apologized for its failures in that area, and we should respect that.
Assume the Academy, Rock, and Smith all take the appropriate steps to demonstrate their regret and accountability. Only then can we all go on — and ensure that the eight below-the-line Oscar categories are never pre-taped at another event in the future.
Because of Smith’s actions, the Oscars’ history-making winners have been nearly overshadowed, including Ariana DeBose (“West Side Story”) becoming the first queer woman of color to win an acting award, Troy Kotsur (“CODA”) becoming the first male deaf actor to win, and the industry-wide significance of “CODA” becoming the first film released on a streaming platform to win best picture.
Allow their accomplishments to lead additional 94th Oscars tales, at least as our responsible participants heed the aforementioned advise, out of respect for those who have had their spotlights lost in the shuffle.