Op-Ed: March Madness—Will Smith and Chris Rock Oscars’ Incident Is a Microcosm of the Pressure and Struggle of Being a Black Man

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Image: Neilson Barnard/Getty Images.

The phrase “March Madness” normally is associated with the NCAA Tournament, but this weekend’s Academy Awards entered the fray for unfortunate reasons.

At Sunday’s Academy Awards’ incident between actors Will Smith and Chris Rock, the latter joked about the bald hairstyle of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, who suffers from alopecia (a form of hair loss), giving her the moniker “G.I. Jane” from the film, where actress Demi Moore’s character shaved her head.

Smith initially laughed at Rock’s joke, then took to the stage, slapped Rock, went back to his seat, and shouted: “Keep my wife’s name out of your f—–g mouth.”

Smith’s slap, his Oscar acceptance win speech for best actor, and Rock’s reaction to being slapped, are representative of the Black male experience.

Let me make it clear: I’m not an advocate for violence solving any and all of all issues, but paraphrasing Rock’s Bring the Pain HBO comedy special, it probably wasn’t right for Smith to choose violence, but I understand. I’m also aware how Smith’s actions were extremely awkward. (Poor Lupita Nyong’o—her reaction said it all.)

Immediately, several schools of thought played out via social media. 

Some folks continue to describe his actions as a classic case of “toxic masculinity,” while wondering where this energy was during his wife’s “entanglement,” which was unveiled during a session of her Red Table Talk show and provided a series of memes where Smith was the butt of all the jokes. 

Some say Smith wouldn’t have done that to a white comedian.

Some also said Smith was merely standing up for his wife who was at the center of a tasteless joke by Rock, who starred in and narrated the 2009 documentary film Good Hair, in which he explored Black women’s relationship with their hair—a historically fraught affair.

Mainly, Smith ruined the Blackest Oscars ceremony to date. 

Rock, reportedly, is declining to press charges. (Let’s be honest, he’d look like a sucka if he did.)

Only Smith knows what was going through his mind when he decided to pull up on Rock.

You may remember Exonerated Five (formerly Central Park Five) member Antron McCray’s explanation in regards to the fractured relationship he had with his father, Bobby McCray, causing generational trauma. In a 2019 interview with CBS, McCray described how the relationship with his father deteriorated.

“I was like, ‘Dad, I didn’t do nothing. I had the police yelling at me; my father yelling at me and I was just like, ‘I did it,’” McCray told the network. “And I looked up to my father. He was my hero, but he gave up on me; he knew I was telling the truth but he told me to lie.”

McCray was later asked if he achieved closure on the matter. He said, “No, I didn’t want to. My life is ruined. Why should I? He was a coward.”

In the film King Richard, in which Smith won an Oscar for his role portraying Richard Williams (an often misunderstood Black man—y’all see the pattern), the father of tennis legends and the world-class wrecking crew of Venus and Serena Williams, the protagonist shares his reluctant approval for young Venus to go pro. He tells her “I can’t protect you,” in discussing a seminal moment from his youth when his own father failed to protect him.

That moment in the film wasn’t acting for Smith; he most likely pulled something from conversations he’s had over time with Pinkett Smith, and his children Willow and Jaden, the latter whom tweeted in the aftermath of the Oscars, “And That’s How We Do It.”

“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams! But, love will make you do crazy things,” said Smith in his acceptance speech.

And, on a train that is never late, well-meaning white Twitter, including white feminists—an historic irritant to the Black community—entered the chat to later delete their tweets. 

“He could have killed him,” film producer and director Judd Apatow said in a now-deleted tweet. “That’s pure rage and violence.”

As the author of a book on toxic culture, I’m aware of the irony of me penning one of the thousands of think pieces on the matter. However, like I said, I’m not pro-violence but some of y’all are ignoring the generational trauma of a specific demographic: Black women.

Even if some of you believe you have the best intentions, for the sake of you—and your mentions—please fall back and sit this one out.

Evan F. Moore is a Chicago-based writer who is the co-author of Game Misconduct: Hockey’s Toxic Culture and How to Fix It. His work has been published in the Chicago Sun-Times, EBONY, ESPN and The Athletic, among many others.

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