Chris Rock made a joke. Will Smith quickly took offense. And the Oscars suddenly had a scene like none other. Smith — moments before winning best actor honors for his portrayal of tennis dad Richard Williams in King Richard — marched on stage and appeared to smack Rock during Sunday night’s Academy Awards after the comic made a joke about the appearance of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth,” and the crowd hushed as it became clear this was no act. Smith apologized afterward to many people — including tennis stars Venus and Serena Williams, Richard Williams’ daughters — but did not mention Rock in his apology.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said as he began his acceptance speech.
He then paused, the meaning behind his choice of words clear, and teared up as he spoke about being a protector for those who worked with him on the film.
“I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people,” Smith said during his acceptance speech. “I know to do what we do you’ve got to be able to take abuse. You’ve got to be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you’ve got to be able to have people disrespecting you. And you’ve got to smile and pretend like that’s OK.”
There were few, if any, smiles during the incident.
The exchange began when Rock took aim at Pinkett Smith’s shaved head, saying, “Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can’t wait to see it, all right?”
Pinkett Smith revealed in 2018 that she was diagnosed with alopecia. She has often discussed the challenges of hair loss on Instagram and other social media platforms.
The joke missed, badly.
Smith walked onto the stage from his front-row seat and took a swing at Rock with an open palm, generating a loud smack. Smith walked back to his seat and shouted for Rock to leave Pinkett Smith alone. Rock replied that he was just making a GI Jane joke — and Smith yelled back at him a second time.
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said, then resumed his role as presenter.
A few minutes later, rapper Sean Combs — on stage to introduce a tribute to The Godfather — tried to play peacemaker and suggested Smith and Rock settle their differences at an Oscars afterparty.
“Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the Gold party,” Combs said.
The reverberations did not stop there. Several people approached Smith and Pinkett Smith in the commercial breaks that followed; Keith Urban hugged Smith during one stoppage in the show, Nicole Kidman also went over to say a few words as well.
Backstage, during interview sessions with winners, the Rock-Smith incident seemed like something few — if anyone — wanted to discuss.
“I’m not talking about that,” said Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, the director of Summer of Soul, which won an Oscar for best documentary.
Pinkett Smith was also the subject of jokes from Rock when he hosted the Oscars in 2016. She did not attend the Oscars that year, saying at the time her decision stemmed from a lack of diversity among award nominees and how Black artists were not properly represented.
“I’m hoping the Academy invites me back,” Will Smith said, as he concluded his on-stage remarks.