Will ‘the slap’ change how we see Will Smith?

OPINION: He has spent decades carefully cultivating the image of a super-nice guy, and at the moment when he finally got the ultimate trophy for acting, he put that image in jeopardy.

Will Smith holds his award for Best Actor in a Leading Role for "King Richard" as he attends the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 94th Oscars at the The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, California on March 27, 2022. (Photo by PATRICK T. FALLON/AFP via Getty Images)

I’m still processing what happened at the Will Smith Oscars. Can several things be true at once? In a moment that perhaps revealed his massive ego and his sense of entitlement, Will Smith smacked Chris Rock during a live broadcast for making a joke that would have been forgotten immediately if no one had commented on it. He did this knowing full well that he’s big enough to smack Rock and face no real consequences. 

Also, perhaps this is true, too: Will found himself feeling embarrassed and angry in front of his entire work community after Rock made a joke about a sensitive part of his wife’s physical body and the alopecia she’s working through. In a flash, he decided to defend his wife’s honor by showing Rock who was the more powerful man and…he handled it the way he might have when he was a teenager in West Philly. 

Could Will have been standing up for his wife’s honor and protecting his Black woman, and, at the same time, embarrassing himself? Could Rock have gone over the line by joking about Jada’s physical appearance? And, could we—yes, us, the viewers—be hypocritical in condemning Will for slapping Rock in a nation filled with violence of all sorts, much of which we accept? If someone at your workplace made your wife the butt of a painful joke about a difficult thing she was going through, can you be sure that you wouldn’t lose it?

Will also won the Oscar for best actor. That may end up overshadowed in the collective memory, which is sad because it’s something he’s been chasing for decades and perhaps something he deserves. But here’s the thing about that—Will is not a great actor in terms of being a chameleon or an amazing craftsman. He could never do what Denzel did with Macbeth. 

But Will is a charismatic comedian. He has a way of making millions of people like him and laugh with him, thus making millions want to watch him go through the stories he wants to tell. Part of that charisma is built up offstage in the pictures and videos of Will smiling wide all the time and laughing disarmingly, putting people at ease. He has spent decades carefully cultivating the image of a super-nice guy, and at the moment when he finally got the ultimate trophy for acting, he put that image in jeopardy. In many eyes, that image has now been shattered.

I’m not saying his career is suddenly over; far from it. But a star of that magnitude knows that the way people perceive him as a person is critical to how they react to his movies. If many no longer think he’s a nice guy, it could impact his career. That said, isn’t protecting your wife what a good guy is supposed to do? If someone embarrasses a wife in public, shouldn’t a husband stand up for her?  

Other things happened at the Will Smith Oscars—Beyoncé gave us an amazing performance in tennis-ball green, and Ariana DeBose won best supporting actress for her role in West Side Story. CODA, a nice movie about a lovely family, won the award for best picture, continuing Oscar’s love of awarding small, artful films that few people would want to watch again and again. 

How many of the films that have won best picture would you be excited to watch again? For me, over the last 20 years, there have been just six that I would sit through again. The others, no way. I’m glad I saw CODA once. I almost cried near the end, and the beauty of sign language hit me like never before. But it’s not a film I feel a need to watch a second time.

For me, the second most important moment of the night was Questlove winning an Oscar. Wow. I’ve known him since he was performing on street corners in Philly, and it’s mind-blowing to think that he’s now both so popular that he’s a household name and so respected that serious musicians listen to him. And, get this: He made an incredible documentary that showcased Black beauty in its glory, Black musicians in their brilliance, Harlem and so much more. And, he wrapped it up in a film that I could watch again and again.

Many have noted that we saw two sides of Philly at the Will Smith Oscars—the artful, intellectual Questlove side and whatever you want to say Will was representing. Many have said maybe Will is troubled, but we also know that he has a spiritual coach, Jay Shetty, who sits with him several times a week to talk about feelings, thoughts and spiritual matters. They did a whole podcast about it. 

They talk about it like Will is in the gym of the spirit, working hard at forging a new self. He’s spending time thinking about his feelings and place in the world and trying to become a better person. But this snap decision will be what many people think is the real Will: violent, arrogant, toxic. The rage he seems to have felt at seeing his wife disrespected in public after dealing with the stress of watching her come to grips with losing her hair—I can understand that. I am not a violent person, but if someone said something about my wife, I might snap. If they said it in front of millions of people—I’m not saying I would’ve done it, but I understand.

Touré, theGrio.com

Touré is the host of the podcast “Toure Show” and the podcast docuseries “Who Was Prince?” He is also the author of seven books.

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