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Violence at the 94th Academy Awards

Oscar statuettes in a souvenir store on Hollywood Boulevard
image credit: iStock / vzphotos

I have a few things I’d like to say about the 94th Academy Awards that took place this last Sunday.

One thing I’m not going to tell you is whether I condone violence under any circumstances. I live in a society in which violence occurs daily in many forms – some practiced by the state, much of it shown onscreen – and it seems to keep going on whether I condone it or not, so please forgive me if I choose not to waste my breath on that point.

The first thing I do want to say is that I wish the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would decide exactly who they want to be when they grow up, and then put together an awards ceremony consistent with that identity.

I get it that they want their annual awards ceremony to be something that people actually watch, and I understand that there is a long tradition of having comics emcee the show, and I know that they commonly insult many of the stars in attendance because – well, the stars are royalty, and it’s always the role of the jester to take a bit of air out of the stuffed shirts. And I know that not all of the jokes are going to be funny, and I appreciate that modern comedy has changed, even if I don’t always enjoy it.


My discomfort, and apparently Will Smith’s, seemed to start early in the show, when he and other attractive male stars were invited up on the stage to participate in a quick Covid test (wink-wink) to be conducted backstage by one or more of the female emcees. I’ve seen this bit described as risqué, and I think it was handled about as well as it could be by the parties involved, but it still seemed to me to be more demeaning than funny, and I understood when Smith declined the invitation. But it seemed some indication of the sort of low humor that the Academy was condoning in order to entertain as wide an audience as possible, and so perhaps seemed to open the doors for the tasteless and insulting Chris Rock “joke” that followed a bit later.

And speaking of pandering to the audience, as well as moral hypocrisy, what on earth was the point of celebrating the 60th anniversary of the first James Bond film? I perhaps could have forgiven the Academy if they had deigned to mention the original author, Ian Fleming, and the books on which the films were based, but no, it was all action sequences celebrating sixty years of the cinematic depiction of sex appeal and violence, real and threatened. But, of course, it served to send the message that the Academy knows that it’s not the artsy films that pay the bills, but the popular ones and, these days, especially the franchises. And so, a tip of the hat to the biggest and longest-running franchise – even if none of these films have ever been nominated for the Best Picture award – or Best Adapted Screenplay, for that matter.

And now, finally, let’s talk about Will Smith walking up on stage and slapping Chris Rock across the face.

And, because I’m a University of Michigan alum, and a fan of college basketball, I have to say how much Will Smith’s act reminded me of Juwan Howard’s a little more than a month ago, when he reached out to strike someone during an argument following the end of a game.

And then both of those incidents remind me of the time when Miles Davis was assaulted and arrested by the New York City Police in 1959.

And, for me, the common thread running through these three incidents is this particularly American problem we seem to have that a black male, no matter what his achievements, no matter how far he has come, will never quite be able to enjoy the degree of respect that he has legitimately earned.

And so Miles Davis, between sets at the hottest jazz club in America, after he has already become an American icon, is beaten up and then arrested by the police just because he was black, and lounging outside of the club where he was performing, and smoking a cigarette.

And then Juwan Howard – I imagine – feels slighted by a fellow college basketball coach, and treated in a way that perhaps their white peers would not be, and feels pushed beyond his limits.

And then Will Smith, on the very eve of being recognized with the Best Actor award, of being given the highest accolade the industry has to offer, is expected to sit quietly and endure crass jokes made at the expense of his wife, while she is sitting right beside him, suffering from a malady whose physical effects she chooses not to hide from the public, and being made fun of for her condition.

Would a white actor have been treated in a similar fashion? Was it considered acceptable because it was black-male-on-black-male verbal abuse?

These are, ultimately, unanswerable questions. But worth asking, I think.

Especially for those of us who might wish to celebrate our European ancestries, it is also worth recognizing that there are long traditions of using violence to defend one’s honor, and the honor of one’s family, and especially the women in one’s family.

I’m struck – intellectually, but not physically, I must admit – that in the cases of both Will Smith and Juwan Howard, there seemed to have been no visible injuries inflicted, and no apparent desire to inflict injury. Rather, they seemed largely symbolic acts intended to uphold the honor of those who believed themselves to have been insulted.

I will note that even the “family-friendly” drama that won the Academy Award for Best Picture this year, CODA, contained at least one scene (a barroom brawl, if I’m remembering it correctly) depicting more violence than we saw on stage at the Oscars this year.

I realize that, as in the case of Juwan Howard, we now have to go through all the ritualistic apologies and investigations and punishments and regrets – and that, as much as we claim to abhor all of this violence, it will consume us for a few more days as we watch and rewatch the slap as it was caught on film, and all of its repercussions.

I just wish that events like these might also lead us to connect some of the dots to other acts of violence and racism in our society, to see how these things are connected, and to perhaps have a bit more empathy for the successful black men who find it necessary to act in this manner to defend themselves, especially when they feel threatened while in the center of powerful institutions traditionally controlled exclusively by white males.

March 29, 2022