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Will Smith’s Oscar behavior shines a spotlight on celebrity privilege

If you haven’t yet heard about the moment where actor Will Smith stormed the stage and slapped comedian Chris Rock in the face at the Oscars, then you missed what was ultimately one of the clearest displays of celebrity privilege in the history of Hollywood. 

At the Oscars, which took place last Sunday, March 27, at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, Rock took the stage to present the award for best documentary feature. On stage, Rock made a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith and her shaved head, comparing her to the main character in the movie, “G.I. Jane.”

The joke was met with a mixture of laughter and grimacing faces from the audience, one of which belonged to Pinkett Smith herself, but when the camera panned to her husband, he was laughing and smiling. A few seconds later though, Smith walked onto the stage and violently slapped Rock across the face. 

Any regular spectator of live television may have thought that this was just a prank or a scripted skit, but it soon became very clear that no one in the room, least of all Rock, was expecting that blow. 

Rock handled the situation as well as one could expect, even following the hit up with a joke.

“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said.

Only 40 minutes after this abrupt and unnecessary act of violence, Smith returned to the stage to accept the Oscar for best actor. His speech was full of sobs, a few excuses and apologies strewn to everyone except Rock. He also tried to defend his actions by comparing himself to the man he played in the film, “King Richard.”

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said during his emotional speech.

Smith didn’t take responsibility for his actions and he wasn’t given any immediate consequences. In fact, his speech was met with a standing ovation. 

Not only did Smith’s actions display his overwhelming celebrity privilege, but it took away the spotlight from every other attendee and award winner there that night. There were people there that worked just as hard as Smith and didn’t assault someone who deserved to be recognized properly. 

Troy Kotsur won his first Academy Award for best supporting actor for his role as the father of a deaf family in Apple TV’s “CODA.” The actor himself was born without hearing, making history as the second deaf person to ever win an Oscar. Ariana DeBose’s win for best supporting actress in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of “West Side Story” also made history, as she became the first openly queer woman of color to win an Academy Award, according to The Massachusetts Daily Collegian

These awardees and trailblazers should have been the highlights from the Oscars this year, but instead, Smith’s violent slap will forever be the biggest standout memory. 

The Academy’s response was to post on Twitter. 

“The Academy does not condone violence of any form. Tonight we are delighted to celebrate our 94th Academy Awards winners, who deserve this moment of recognition from their peers and movie lovers around the world,” the Academy tweeted.

When the producer of the awards show, Will Packer, was interviewed about the incident, he said he advocated for Smith, according to Entertainment Weekly

“It couldn’t be made right in that moment because of what had happened,” Packer said. “But I think we were hoping that he’d made it better, that he’d stand on that stage and say what just happened minutes ago was absolutely and completely wrong. ‘Chris Rock, I’m so sorry, please forgive me.’ That’s what I was hoping for. I felt like he was going to win [best actor], and I was hoping, if he stayed, that he said that.”

Celebrities need to be held accountable for their actions, just like anyone else. There have been so many instances of celebrity privilege, where unjustifiable actions are excused or are met with very little repercussions. Smith violently assaulted someone on live television, but was not forced to leave and was in fact, encouraged to stay. This is not only a horrible example to set for young viewers and fans, but it has set the precedent for how much famous people can get away with. 


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