The organisers of the 94th Academy Awards probably predicted that the ceremony would make headlines for several reasons. Perhaps there would be a contentious win or two, a film that would sweep all the categories, an instance of fashion brilliance on the red carpet, a viral audience reaction clip. What they could not have foreseen, however, is the moment when Will Smith took to the stage to “slap the s**t” out of comedian Chris Rock. With the video of the altercation now having garnered ninety million views on YouTube alone, it was the defining moment of the night.
After delivering a risky joke that poked fun at Jada Pinkett Smith’s lack of hair, Chris Rock was on the receiving end of a blow from an enraged Will Smith. Just forty minutes later, Smith won the award for Best Actor for his role in King Richard. In a tearful acceptance speech, Smith apologised to the Academy for his actions, declaring that, “Love will make you do crazy things.” An apology for Chris Rock was notably lacking from the speech. Smith has since resigned from the Academy.
The moment has split opinion. Joseph Patel, the producer of Summer of Soul, the documentary which won the category Chris Rock was presenting, claimed that the incident had “robbed the category of its moment”. Other celebrities such as Liam Payne defended Smith, stating that he had the right to do what he did.
But perhaps the moment symbolises something more. After all, it was not the only controversy surrounding this year’s Oscars. The Academy decided in the run-up to the ceremony to film the awards for some categories before the live broadcasting of the event. Excerpts from the presentations for categories including Best Animated Short Film, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup and Hairstyling and Best Original Score would then be added to the televised section later. Designed to increase ratings after viewership slumped disastrously in 2021, many members of the Academy felt side-lined, with their moments being taken away from them in a bid to pander to TV audiences.
Add this to the ongoing concerns of racism and diversity that the Academy has had to address, and Smith’s slap seems less like an isolated event and more like a symptom of the Oscars’ disintegration over the past decade. Although there has been significant progress made, nominations for Oscars have continued to be overwhelmingly given to white people. The fact that there has been only one non-white winner in the category of Best Actress (Halle Berry for her role as Leticia Musgrove in Monster’s Ball) is indicative of this trend. Parasite made history in 2020 by being the first foreign-language film to win Best Picture. Chloe Zhao was the first woman of colour to win Best Director – only the second woman in history to win the award. Things seem to be changing, but critics have argued that it has been a long time coming and that the Academy as an institution is still afflicted by racism and sexism.
It seems like the Oscars has lost its lustre. Maybe it began with the infamous 2017 Best Picture mix-up between Moonlight and La La Land, an embarrassment still engrained into cultural memory. This was mainly attributed to the fact that the Academy changed the font and design of winner cards, making it difficult for presenters Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway to realize that they had been given the Best Actress card instead.
Or perhaps it was when stars stopped using their acceptance speeches to thank those that they were indebted to and starting using them to preach about political and social issues. There is something quite uncomfortable about listening to Leonardo DiCaprio lecture us about impending environmental disaster after his 2016 win when he later flew 8,000 miles in a private jet to accept an award on climate change. Combined with the fact that this year’s Oscar’s gift bag was worth $140,000 and included a luxury three-night hotel stay, liposuction, a home improvements package and a life-coaching session, as a casual viewer you feel a bit like Chris Rock – slapped in the face by millionaires who sermonize at you from the podium, failing to recognize their privilege and wealth.
Emerging from a pandemic and in the midst of conflict in Ukraine, the Oscars simply seemed less sparkly. Collapsing under the weight of scheduling changes, political controversies, diversity issues and the actions of arrogant film stars, you have to ask if this is the end of the Academy Awards’ golden age. The slap was only the icing on top of the cake when it comes to an awards ceremony which appears to be gradually losing its prestige.