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Will Smith slaps Chris Rock after Jada Pinkett Smith joke at Oscars

Will Smith slapped Chris Rock after the comedian made a joke about Smith's wife's hair during the Oscars on March 27. Smith won best actor for "King Richard." (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post, Photo: Brian Snyder/Reuters/The Washington Post)
8 min

The Academy Awards briefly came to a stunning halt Sunday night when Chris Rock made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith, after which Will Smith went to the stage and hit him in the face.

The moment was not planned, said a person close to the Oscars production who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to comment publicly. Smith, who played Richard Williams (the father of tennis prodigies Venus and Serena) in the biopic “King Richard,” appeared onstage about 40 minutes later to accept his prize for best actor.

Smith cried throughout his speech, in which he didn’t reference Rock directly but apologized to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his fellow nominees for the disruption. “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams,” Smith said, possibly trying to lighten the mood of the still shocked audience. “But love will make you do crazy things.”

The moment stunned audience members — both at home and in attendance at Los Angeles’s Dolby Theatre — and went on to dominate online discourse after the ceremony’s end. Reactions were split among those supporting Smith’s extreme defense of his wife (to varying extents), those condemning his behavior and the rest not knowing how to respond to it at all.

After the show, the academy released a statement saying it “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.”

Oscars 2022 recap: A celeb-packed night interrupted by a slap heard ’round the world

The incident started as Rock arrived to present the award for best documentary and began riffing about celebrity attendees. “Jada, I love you: ‘G.I. Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see it,” Rock said, an apparent reference to Pinkett Smith’s bald head. She has spoken publicly about her alopecia diagnosis several times.

The camera cut to the star couple and showed Smith laughing. Pinkett Smith rolled her eyes and did not look pleased.

Rock then held up his arms in a “who, me?” gesture as some of the audience groaned. “That was a nice one,” Rock said with a grin and then looked as if he was ready to continue. But the tone changed as Smith jumped out of his seat and made his way to the stage.

“Uh oh!” Rock said jovially. He started laughing as Smith kept walking. Then Smith slapped him in the face.

The audience was still cracking up, perhaps thinking this was all a bit — and then abruptly stopped. ABC cut the sound on the broadcast, so there was about 20 seconds of silence. However, clips from international TV making the rounds on Twitter showed the dialogue between the two actors.

“Oh, wow!” Rock said as Smith walked back to his seat. “Wow. Will Smith just smacked the s--- out of me.”

“Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth,” Smith yelled after he sat back down.

“Wow, dude,” Rock said. “It was a ‘G.I. Jane’ joke.”

“Keep my wife’s name out your f---ing mouth!” Smith shouted louder.

“I’m going to. Okay?” Rock said, shaking his head. “Okay.”

At this point, the audio kicked back in on the ABC feed.

“That was, uh,” Rock said, trailing off. “Greatest night in the history of television?”

The audience laughed uncomfortably as Rock, who seemed shaken, moved on to award the prize for best documentary.

The slap was the topic du jour (at least among celebrities being interviewed) at the Vanity Fair after-party. According to E!, John Legend declared it “a no-comment type of night.” Two-time Oscar nominee Leslie Odom Jr. pointed out that Smith was in a vulnerable position.

“This business can sometimes feel like walking around with your skin ripped off,” Odom told Vanity Fair. “ … I think we saw two artists, you know, with their hearts open. It’s a vulnerable moment — sometimes it’s messy, but it’s always beautiful when it’s the truth.”

“I’m from Philly. It felt very Philly to me,” Quinta Brunson, star of “Abbott Elementary,” told Variety. “That’s all I have to say.” (Smith is famously a Philadelphia native.)

Later, the Los Angeles Police Department released a statement to media outlets: “LAPD investigative entities are aware of an incident between two individuals during the Academy Awards program. The incident involved one individual slapping another,” it read. “The individual involved has declined to file a police report. If the involved party desires a police report at a later date, LAPD will be available to complete an investigative report.”

Several moments after the onstage incident, reporters in attendance at the show started tweeting about Denzel Washington (as well as Tyler Perry) seen talking to the flustered couple. Variety reported that Smith’s publicist, Meredith O’Sullivan, also spoke to the actor during the commercial break.

The moment went mostly unmentioned for the next few awards, though presenter Diddy said, “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family … but right now, we’re moving on with love.” (The camera showed Smith and Pinkett Smith in their seats laughing and applauding.)

But when Smith arrived to accept the best actor trophy, he started with a nod to what had just occurred.

“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said, drawing a few knowing chuckles from the audience, who also seemed to not know how to react. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world.”

He spoke through tears about protecting his co-stars during the film and about the pressure of being in the entertainment industry when people can “talk crazy” about you, “disrespecting you.”

“I know to do what we do, you gotta be able to take abuse,” Smith said. “And you gotta smile, and you gotta pretend like that’s okay.”

Though "CODA" won for best picture, best actor winner Will Smith slapping presenter Chris Rock for making a joke dominated the 94th Academy Awards on March 27. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Smith said that a few moments before his speech, Washington told him, “At your highest moment, be careful, that’s when the devil comes for you.” Smith added he wasn’t crying because of the award: “It’s not about winning an award for me. It’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people.”

At the end, he said, “I’m hoping the academy invites me back.”

For the rest of the show, everyone essentially treated the shocking moment like a joke. “Did I miss anything? There’s like, a different vibe in here,” co-host Amy Schumer commented.

“What an evening,” presenter Anthony Hopkins noted. “Will Smith said it all. What more can be said? Let’s have peace and love and quiet.”

The camera panned to Smith both times, who was laughing in the crowd. Shortly following the ceremony, Smith’s son, actor Jaden Smith, tweeted, “And That’s How We Do It.”

This was not the first time Rock made fun of Pinkett Smith at the Oscars. In 2016, Rock hosted the show and mocked the actress for saying she was boycotting the ceremony because of the lack of diversity among the nominees.

“Jada got mad and said she’s not coming. Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties: I wasn’t invited,” Rock said at the time. “But I understand, I’m not hating, I understand you’re mad. Jada’s mad her man, Will, was not nominated for ‘Concussion.’ It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for ‘Wild Wild West.’ ”

Discussion of Smith and Rock took over TV and social media after the show came to a close. During E!'s “Oscars After Party” special, the hosts spent several minutes defending Smith and said that while the actor got caught up in the moment wanting to protect his family, it was disappointing that the ugly incident would take away from the rest of the ceremony.

Actress Sophia Bush tweeted, “Violence isn’t ok. Assault is never the answer. Also? This is the 2nd time that Chris has made fun of Jada on the #Oscars stage, & tonight he went after her alopecia. Punching down at someone’s auto-immune disease is wrong. Doing so on purpose is cruel. They both need a breather.”

Others were unwilling to excuse — or attempt to understand — Smith’s actions.

“He could have killed him,” director Judd Apatow said in a since-deleted tweet. “That’s pure out of control rage and violence. They’ve heard a million jokes about them in the last three decades.”

“I just want to tell everyone, because I know people are confused — that was a real moment. I heard every word of that from Will Smith’s chest,” said Rotten Tomatoes awards editor Jacqueline Coley, who added that she was in the room at the time and saw Smith crying during the commercial break. “In that moment, he didn’t even think about that best actor win. He thought about his wife. And I just feel sad. I feel sad for everyone involved, because it robbed that moment of what it could have been.”