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Smith's slap at the Oscars wasn't protecting anyone, culture critic writes


Many of us are still talking and tweeting about it - the slap at the Oscars. Will Smith lashed out after presenter Chris Rock told a joke about Will Smith's wife and her hair. But her shaved head isn't a fashion statement; she has a medical condition called alopecia, which causes hair loss. The day after the slap, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences condemned it, and Will Smith publicly apologized to Chris Rock on Instagram, saying he was out of line and wrong. Soraya Nadia McDonald is the senior culture critic for Andscape, formerly known as The Undefeated. Soraya, I mentioned that Will Smith has now apologized to Chris Rock, but when he won the best actor Oscar, he gave a tearful speech. You have written that you don't buy it. So what struck you as off about it?

SORAYA NADIA MCDONALD: Yes. Well, you know, there's something about that speech that I think speaks to a certain self-aggrandizement, you know, because it ended up kind of reinforcing the thing about this evening that I think ended up being the most profane, which is that it really sort of directed attention from everyone who is gathered there, you know, for this yearly industry fete and focused it all on Will Smith, but not in the way that I think he wanted it to. And even in his apology, you know, the live apology at the Oscars, the thing that sort of comes through is this need to center himself - right? - over, you know, Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who won the Oscar for best documentary feature, you know, over his wife and everyone, you know, even himself and, you know, the other nominees that evening.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah. And he called it an act of love, to defend his wife. Soraya, I mean, if you were in Jada's seat and that happened to you, what's the first thing you would have said to Will when you had a moment alone?

MCDONALD: Please don't do that.


MCDONALD: You know, because here's the thing. You know, think about this - you know, say NPR has a yearly gala for everyone, you know, who works in public broadcasting. You know, how would you like it if your spouse went up and slapped someone in front of everybody that you work with?

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, that would be bad. But the thing is, I mean, Chris Rock's a comedian. I mean, aren't they supposed to be making fun of celebrities at these awards shows? It's kind of like, they're there because they know they're going to get knocked down a peg.

MCDONALD: That is absolutely true. That is, you know, certainly something that happens at the Oscars every year. It's a tradition - right? - particularly in the opening monologue. And I think that was what initially made it so confusing, is that people really had a hard time trying to figure out whether or not this was a bit, until, you know, you could sort of see the anger on Will's face as he was shouting at Chris Rock from his seat after he'd returned.

MARTÍNEZ: And you mentioned, Soraya, that it's kind of like Will Smith, in your opinion, was kind of centering himself on this, when it came to that speech he gave. But some have also called what we saw on stage toxic masculinity.


MARTÍNEZ: I saw "The View's" Sunny Hostin call it a show of toxic masculinity. How do you see it? Is there any - does it hold any water?

MCDONALD: Yeah, I think so. I agree completely. You know, this idea that a woman's honor must be protected or defended, you know, with physical violence is something that I think doesn't really benefit the woman very much, right? It's much more about sort of brandishing one's own sort of masculine bona fides, but in a way that, you know, when we see this happen in real life, I don't know that it's necessarily so romantic. If anything, it's highly disturbing because it - you know, there's a violence there.

MARTÍNEZ: Yeah, especially, well, when you hear, love makes you do crazy things - I think a lot of people might have had some bad flashbacks hearing that.

MCDONALD: I think so and justifiably so. You know, that is something that we hear from folks who really have trouble with boundaries.

MARTÍNEZ: Senior culture critic for Andscape, Soraya Nadia McDonald. Soraya, thanks a lot.

MCDONALD: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.