My indifference to award shows, especially The Oscars, usually consists of me reading the nominated and winner lists on the Oscars website and moving on with my day. Sometimes, I will follow up with a tweet in the rare occurrence that a person of color is nominated or has won. However, my ambivalence about this year’s Oscars was brought to a halt when the names Will, Chris and Jada violently bombarded my Twitter timeline.
During the 94th Oscars, King Richard’s Will Smith struck presenter Chris Rock in response to a joke Rock made about Jada Pinkett Smith’s shaved head. Rock’s joke, “Jada I love you, ‘G.I Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” was met with Smith’s “keep my wife’s name out of your f****** mouth.”
Rock’s joke was directed at Pinkett’s shaved head, which she has publicly explained is because of her battle with alopecia (an autoimmune disease that causes hair loss). At first glance, Rock’s ill-mannered joke presents issues of ableism and unfunny rhetoric that brings us to question who gave him the green-light to present this in front of ABC’s 15.4 million viewers. Smith’s physical reaction to such a joke on behalf of his wife, also presents problems of physical assault and patriarchal ideals of protection and fragile masculinity. However, there are greater racial nuances to the analysis and commentary of the situation that touch on themes of Black womanhood and presentation of femininity, as well as white supremacist standards for public performantism and systemic hyprocrisy. Discussing the altercation requires a greater understanding of the way white rage overshadows greater structural implications on our analysis of The Oscars, and the ways The Oscars themselves are violent.
It goes without saying that an archaic institution, like The Academy Awards, is a pillar in the constant perpetuation of the entertainment industry’s racial neglect, misogyny and biased regulations of artistic expression. However, the coverage and response from celebrities, media outlets, and The Academy have been laced with anti-Black and hypocritical rhetoric that I find ironic. I don’t wish to break down Rock’s jokes or why Smith struck him, but rather to criticize the conversations that surround that occurrence.
I did not think The Academy was going to issue a statement, considering the multitude of times The Academy has chosen to remain silent on other accounts of violence that have been enacted by nominees or committee members. Shortly after the incident, The Academy responded to the viral confrontation with “The Academy does not condone violence of any form.” Upon reading that, aside from laughing at the extreme display of detachment, I was left confused thinking about the different types of violence The Oscars have either excused or enacted. Coupled with rumors that The Academy might revoke Smith’s Oscar, one can’t help but see through the hypocrisy.
Much like last year The Oscars were held at Union Station, Los Angeles, Cali. For this night-long affair, the city of Los Angeles completely displaced unhoused residents of Union Station and relocated them to the Grand Hotel around the area. In the days preceding, they completely wiped out encampments of the residents and set up a 10 foot security fence around the larger perimeters of the area. The physical divide that is set in place by elitist institutions for events that celebrate wealth accumulation and detachment (as similarly seen during The Met Gala) are aggressive perpetuations of wealth and class divide. Aside from the literal removal of human bodies, COVID-19 testing sites set up at Union Station were relocated to other complexes much further away from the station, making it harder for the access of disabled residents of the area, and the station was completely shut off for a week leading up to The Oscars. Public services were cut off for the sake of private profit and the accommodation of Hollywood’s selective few. The consumption of award shows is very much an ethical question which challenges the way we as the audience want to analyze the altercation between Rock and Smith. Unhoused residents around Union Station unable to receive accessible COVID-19 testing while celebrities attend The Oscars maskless strikes a grotesque image of privilege and divide.
Once in the building, the heavily racialized structural neglect that The Oscar’s committee has time and time again inflicted on BIPOC creatives all over the world poses another challenge. Yah-jung Youn’s 2021 Oscar for best supporting actress for Minari, as the first Korean to have won an Oscar in the 93 years of The Academy’s history, sounds like some outrageous fact. On top of that, Halle Berry was the first and last Black woman to have won Best Actress award at the 2002 Oscar’s for her role in Monster’s Ball. In the 20 years since then, it is almost like women of color have not acted or appeared in any projects at all, and it wouldn’t be like the committee watches the movies they vote for anyways. The Oscars have yet to protect the interests of women of color; Sacheen Littlefeather’s safety being threatened as she gave a speech on the appropriation and disrespect of Indegenious culture by Hollywood is an example of this. During the 1973 Oscars, as Littlefeather was giving her speech, John Wayne was physically restrained by six bodyguards from physically assaulting her, all while Clint Eastwood was verbally assaulting and insulting Littlefeather. Did The Oscars not condone violence then? Do The Oscars not condone violence by allowing harvey weinstein and company maintain the 80-plus Oscars they have garnered by profiting from the pain of multiple levels of assault and violence they have ensued?
I’m not negating the fact that Smith did physically assault Rock. However, when discussing the altercation, it’s important to question the entire system on all levels of race and class. At the end of the day, it was a rich man having an altercation with another rich man in a room filled with rich people. For The Oscars to put themselves above the situation is the epitome of White structural privilege and power, and our understanding of The Oscars and what we deem as violence narrows our ability to properly criticize it as a system.