Mixed reactions to Will Smith’s slap
By now, everyone has seen or heard of Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars for making a tasteless, misogynistic joke about his wife’s short hair resembling Demi Moore’s buzz cut in the movie “GI Jane” from 1997. Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune disease that causes unintentional hair loss. As shocking as Smith’s slap was, so were the mixed reactions to the assault within the black female community, who either praised or condemned her violence.
Comedian Tiffany Haddish, who starred in the 2017 film “Girls Trip” with Pinkett Smith, applauded Will Smith’s action.
“When I saw a black man standing up for his wife, it meant so much to me,” Haddish told People magazine. “And maybe the world might not like the way it turned out, but to me, it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”
Even our Democratic US Representative Ayanna Pressley, who also suffers from alopecia, tweeted a knee-jerk response initially supporting Smith’s assault on Rock which was later deleted, condemning the violence.
“#Alopecia nation stand up! Thanks #WillSmith,” Pressley tweeted. “Bravo to all the husbands who defend their wives with alopecia in the face of ignorance and daily insults.”
Historical antecedents such as 250 years of slavery and 90 years of Jim Crow followed by 60 years of “separate but equal” rule of law to the present day have never given black men the opportunity to protect and defend the honor of black women from the brutal hands of white men. But romanticizing Smith’s violence as an act of chivalry masks his toxic masculinity.
Later that night, Smith won the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the biopic ‘King Richard,’ in which he played tennis phenom Venus and Serena’s father. In his acceptance speech, Smith said, “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family”, to justify his actions. The following day, Richard Williams reacted to Smith’s incident.
“We don’t know all the details of what happened. But we don’t condone anyone hitting anyone else unless it’s in self-defense,” Richard Williams via his son, Chavoita LeSane, told NBC News.
Plus, Smith’s pride in comparing his violence that night on the world stage to Richard Williams’ decade-long struggle to raise his talented daughters in gang-ridden Compton is appalling. Willams’ physical altercations were with gang members forbidding him to use local public tennis courts for training his daughters.
During Smith’s acceptance speech, a common phrase was all too often and oddly adopted by men who beat, beat and kill their wives and girlfriends: “Love will make you do crazy things.” Just imagine what he would do if he didn’t love you.
It doesn’t matter whether Chris Rock knows about Pinkett Smith’s alopecia or not, because black women’s hair is the third rail in the community. The landmine can explode even with good intentions, and Rock knows it. In 2009, Chris Rock produced the documentary “Good Hair” when his daughter asked, “Dad, how come I don’t have good hair?” The documentary was meant to de-stigmatize via an open conversation about black hair that is usually kept secret in shame. The discussion included a list of luminaries: Maya Angelou, Raven-Symoné, Nia Long, Salt-N-Pepa, Eve and the Reverend Al Sharpton, to name a few, whose insights I believe have been , wasted. That said, it’s clear from Rock’s joke about Pinkett Smith’s hairstyle that he learned nothing from his documentary, which felt like a mockumentary. The movie was meant to educate and entertain, but it did neither, and no one was laughing but Rock. Acclaimed film critic Robert Ebert reviewed the documentary saying, “Why do I know more about this subject than Chris Rock?” And he is white.
And let’s not forget Sesame Street’s controversial 2010 song “I Love My Hair,” a remake of “Whip My Hair” sung by Willow Smith, daughter of actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith. The song was meant to promote self-pride, but received mixed reviews within the African-American community, with some criticizing the song as a black accommodating version of white girls throwing off their braids.
Will Smith understands the problem. Having a daughter and a wife, he knows the raw, delicate, embarrassing and humiliating feelings many black women have about their hair. Smith may have thought he was defending Pinkett Smith’s honor, but he instead desecrated his intentions with his violence. Moreover, believing that she could not defend herself is an integral part of heteropatriarchy. Violence is only one of its components.
Reverend Irene Monroe is a lecturer, theologian and syndicated columnist. She does a segment called “All Revved Up!” on WGBH (89.7 FM) on Boston Public Radio and a segment called “What’s Up?” Fridays on New England Channel News.