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Actor, comedian stage antics a big let down 

Friday, April 1st, 2022 00:00 | By
Best Actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock for a crass joke on his wife. PD/courtesy

It was simply incredible. Chris Rock the American stand-up comedian had walked to the stage at the Dolby Theatre and was making jokes as is expected of him. People were rewarding him with laughter. 

Then came the moment, he made a joke at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith, the 51-year-old wife of Will Smith – and who does not know Will Smith? It was not the first time that the Smiths had been subjects of Rock’s jokes.

This time the joke was on Jada who suffers alopecia, a condition that affects hair growth. G.I Jane is a 1997 military-based movie that featured Demi Moore.  In the movie More cropped her hair short, a near semblance of Jada’s. G.I. Jane may not be that well known, it did not do well at the box office, grossing USD 48 million on a USD 50 million budget.

But it seems that Jada’s lack of hair reminded Rock of Demi Moore in G.I Jane. Thus, on stage, waiting to award the best documentary, Rock said “Jada, I love you: G. I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it”. 

At first Smith, sitting next to lovely Lupita Nyongo, laughed with everybody else. Jada, sitting across from him rolled her eyes at Rock’s joke, and that seemed to serve as the cue.

Smith stood, walked the distance to the stage, and slapped a stunned Rock. It was a heavy slap. You could see the strain on Smith’s neck as he applied the force, and the shove that the slap gave to Rock’s face. Two successful black men, on the world’s largest stage, live on art’s most glamorous night, with cameras rolling settling the matter through physical brute force. It is the image of the savage black man, all over again, now in a suit!

Rock recovered somewhat, still managed a joke even if shaken. Smith has been defended by many for standing up for his wife. Shortly after, he was honored by the Academy for his role in King Richard. But the damage was done. The image of the violent black man was reinforced.

Yet Smith did not stop with the violence. Back to his seat, he twice used expletives directed at Chris. Again, this on the world’s stage at the expense of the black man. Media, and particularly film, has been the most effective tool of framing the black man as a violent criminal and reinforcing it. 

Part of the success of the Cosby Show was to debunk this image. In the Cosby Show Cliff Huxtable was a successful middle class black family that did not fit the stereotype. This seemed to have been the mission of the 1970s and 1980s theatre that featured black people.

When Halle Maria Berry won the best actress it seemed that the rewards of the hard work were beginning to come through. Then this. 

When is it alright to mete out violence? LAPD issued a statement after the incident noting that no one had pressed charges and while the force took note of the incident, it will wait for a complainant to emerge. Rock is not interested in filing a complaint.

Jada has in the past talked about her condition. It may have been insensitive for Rock to make her the subject of his joke. 

But was Smith’s response appropriate? After the incident, Smith’s 23-year-old son tweeted in support of his father with the words “that is how we do it”. Who are we, in the statement?

Black people suffer discrimination and stereotype across the globe all the time. The world needs little excuse to reinforce this image which is not necessarily representative of black people, but which can be used to keep the black people in what some in the world see as the place of the black people. 

Smith should have known better. The world’s stage is no place to supply the world with material to reinforce the stereotype against black people.

— The writer is the dean, School of Communication, Daystar University