Latest academy statement on Will Smith's slap stirs an internet uproar

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HOLLYWOOD, CA - March 27, 2022. Chris Rock and Will Smith onstage during the show at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)
Will Smith leaves the Oscars stage after slapping Chris Rock. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times)

The motion picture academy's announcement Wednesday that it had initiated disciplinary action against Will Smith after the actor slapped presenter Chris Rock during the live Oscars telecast Sunday was met with online responses that were swift and loud, although not as loud as the reaction to news that Smith had been asked to leave the ceremony — and refused.

“Plot thickens,” Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney said wryly on Twitter.

More than anything, the internet was stunned that Smith had been asked to leave the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood after the assault, and that even after he refused, Smith was still given the Oscar for lead actor and allowed to make an acceptance speech all the same.

“I am used to impotent indecision from the academy leaders at this point. But the idea that they made the call decisively and then failed to execute it is almost the worst version of the story I can think of," tweeted entertainment journalist David Poland. "I guess throwing him a knife would have been worse.”

Others keyed in on the language in the academy's Wednesday statement, which was conspicuously ambiguous about who asked Smith to leave, and how. “While we would like to clarify that Mr. Smith was asked to leave the ceremony and refused, we also recognize we could have handled the situation differently,” the statement said.

Former Hollywood Reporter editor Matthew Belloni, now founding partner of pucknews.com, responded on Twitter by saying: “Suggesting to a publicist is NOT the same as the show producer or Academy president walking over and respectfully telling him what needs to happen.”

After Smith was announced as the lead actor Oscar winner for his role in "King Richard," the actor gave a speech more than five minutes long. He apologized to the academy, his fellow nominees and others, but notably not to Rock. It wasn't until the next day that Smith called his actions "inexcusable" and apologized to Rock.

The academy did not specify what type of disciplinary action it might take, but as speculation ramped up online, so too did the number of people arguing that any disciplinary action might be seen as unfair, given the academy's track record. Questions of racial equity also were raised.

“The Academy is moving to expel its first Black actor to win the lead actor Academy Award in 15 years," writer Juwan Holmes speculated, suggesting that sexual harassers and domestic abusers within the academy's ranks received less scrutiny.

Film critic and writer Robert Daniels noted, “Lots of gum smacking from an organization that still counts Mel Gibson as a proud member.”

David Dennis Jr., a senior writer at Andscape, added: “I don’t think the Academy would ever recover if Will Smith is the first person stripped or severely punished by the board.” He also joked: “If Chris Rock had known he would have rich white people rally around him like this he would have asked a Black person to slap him years ago.”

Steven Weintraub, editor-in-chief of Collider, wrote: “Had no idea Will Smith was asked to leave Oscar’s after assaulting Chris Rock & he refused to go. He absolutely needs to be severely punished by @TheAcademy for what he did & what he refused to do. Since the Academy messes up every decision I’m assuming they will screw this up.”

Los Angeles Times columnist Erika D. Smith found still more to critique in an academy statement just four paragraphs long.

“The academy called Smith’s actions a ‘deeply shocking, traumatic event to witness.' OK, again, not great behavior from Will Smith. But ‘traumatic’? Watching footage of a police shooting is traumatic. Surely they mean ‘dramatic.’”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.