One viral tweet from the past week noted that Oscar-winning actor Will Smith has had a relatively spotless career in Hollywood for the last 30 years, but his “tap dancing” pandering to the respectability politics of the entertainment industry was undone overnight once he was no longer deemed “one of the good ones”.
This kind of commentary has emerged since Smith resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and it was announced the 53-year-old actor was banned from the Oscars for the next decade.
The racial dynamics of what unfolded deserve unpacking, because while this violence is inexcusable it did not occur in a vacuum separate from the inherently racialised atmosphere of the Oscars and the industry that surrounds it.
Let’s make one thing clear: while I don’t presume to occupy ethical high ground or have the wherewithal to make the absolute claim that violence is never the answer, I can firmly say violence of this kind is abhorrent.
Moreover, while endless white women — I’m looking at you, Amy Schumer — took the incident as an opportunity to talk about how unjust the situation was for them, actual survivors, of domestic violence in particular, have rightly highlighted that the mere optics of this violence felt unnervingly familiar to their own trauma.
When victims of violent relationships have to tread on eggshells around loved ones and not speak freely, it’s hardly a reach to see parallels with the event that overshadowed everything else at this year’s Oscars.
Let’s make one more thing clear: I am biracial, and even then I skew towards the lighter half of the spectrum and thus promise to tread carefully to the best of my ability here. Does the fact that both of these performers (Smith and Chris Rock) are black affect how we’ve processed the event as a culture? I think so.
The Oscars, the highest mainstream Western film honour on the market, is historically dodgy on racial terms, to put it mildly. Only five black actors have won the Best Actor trophy in the Academy’s long history. One black actress has won the Best Actress trophy, and that was 20 years ago.
The first black actor to win the lead actor award, Sidney Poitier, was similarly accused, by his contemporaries of colour, of pandering to white respectability politics at the time, 1963. Poitier, who passed away earlier this year, was also honoured during the In Memoriam portion of this year’s Oscars.
Scant representation, let alone victory, for black people in film across other categories holds true, too, such as in the Best Director category, where only five black directors have been nominated — all of whom are men and none of whom won.
I don’t doubt Poitier would have had to “tap dance” to a white rhythm in order to make it in the film industry of his time, nor do I blame him.
I would say the same for Smith, who shot to fame during the ’90s, when nary a lead character was black, something that could still be said of today.
You may ask what this torrid history has to do with Slapgate. I believe its relevance lies in the fact that this is not yet a history of the Oscars, Hollywood or popular culture. Remember, #OscarsSoWhite is a contemporary phenomenon and still applicable to recent pools of Oscar nominees, despite gradual improvement in representation.
Will and Jada have incessantly been ridiculed in the public eye for their unconventionally open marriage, which they have been brave enough to speak about publicly. Jada has been brave enough to publicise her hair-loss journey and experience of living with alopecia, a condition black women are particularly prone to.
Without justifying Will’s violent outburst, every cultural artefact pertaining to or involving vulnerable groups or minorities deserves to be internalised with a unique type of nuance that considers history, present-day factors and the socio-political power of the relative observer. I don’t doubt for a second that it has been difficult to be the poster black couple in Hollywood for 25 years.
Was it widely and readily considered shameful that Mel Gibson was welcomed back by the Academy with a Best Director nomination in 2016, after a long history of anti-Semitism on his part had been repeatedly exposed? Was it widely and promptly considered shameful every time Woody Allen and Roman Polanski won Oscars after revelations of their sexual abuse of minors and multiple women had repeatedly come forward? Was it widely and immediately considered shameful that Adrien Brody non-consensually snogged that one black woman to have ever won Best Actress — Halle Berry — on the Oscars stage when she presented him with the Best Actor trophy?
There is no utility in ranking shameful cultural moments in a kind of Olympics of the problematic, but there is endless utility in comparing our cultural response to these transgressions in the pursuit of ensuring that we, the cultural audience, are consistent in our damnation of damnable actions.
Here’s the thing about pointing out double standards: this is by no means a way of diminishing the harm caused by something like Will Smith’s actions, but more so placing it in a larger context to understand how we respond to it and why we respond as we do.
The fact that half of Black Twitter seemed to feel the need to lament how the slap might set back the collective of black actors in Hollywood speaks volumes. Smith’s actions cannot be seen yet as the isolated fault of an individual, because racism still exists and disproportionate social capital is still stratified according to race.
People of colour, especially black folks, know all too well that this event is weaponised to be the kind of confirmation bias that racism still craves.
If you don’t believe me, peruse the comments section under the 94th Academy Awards on any streaming site (no, this is not an endorsement to illegally stream content for free). Trigger warning: the comments are a cesspool of racism.
Black men, particularly in the US, are disproportionately criminalised. As a group, black men are both most vulnerable to having violence thrust upon them by a lottery of socio-environmental factors inherent to a social hierarchy marred by racism, and most unfairly presumed of violence.
Confirmation bias, by definition, is the unfounded confirmation of bias, not truth. Black people are rarely afforded the decency of being understood in the larger context in which they operate. Nuance is hardly ever a futile activity, and I would argue that it is our greatest asset in the face of moral reprehension. If we responded to every transgression with the swiftness of a slap, we’d likely never learn anything. In this way, nuance is the cornerstone of cultural refinement.
Will Smith earned what came to him, but it came with suspicious punctuality in the grander scheme of things. I hope we see more consistency in terms of how accountability is dished out and more nuance in how our culture talks about these events.
Above all, we are capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time, people! We can process Slapgate while engaging in conversations about what people living with alopecia go through and how men are still toxically socialised to “defend their women” in a certain way. We can give Questlove the well-earned praise that was robbed of significance by that slap, for winning an Oscar for a documentary about a long-ignored pinnacle moment in American black culture from 53 years ago. We can argue the case for both sides in an altercation while talking about the lived experiences that Coda, the film about children of deaf adults, should have brought to the forefront of our cultural consciousness when it took the Best Picture statue.
And because this is an article by me, can we please talk about the equally heart-wrenching and heartwarming moment that was gay icons Lady Gaga and Liza Minelli presenting that final award. Queer culture will never be the same, and I don’t think my little gay heart will ever recover from this moment between the two Oscar-winning legends.
So, whether you care about the Oscars or not, this cultural bomb has forced everyone not living under a rock or confronted with war to think about it. I follow these awards intently as a litmus test for how our culture is or isn’t progressing (Greenbook should never have won Best Picture, sue me).
The slap may be drawing to a close, but our cultural discourse is as infinite as we are. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.