Hollywood has a problem. Will Smith is its symbol
Lost in the conversations, memes, .gifs, and hot-takes surrounding the Will Smith-Chris Rock fiasco, was the incident itself — of a man who assaulted another man on live television with complete impunity.
The system is rigged. It always has been.
The system that allows powerful men to run the world, with little to no consequences for their actions; where toxic masculinity rears its ugly head at every turn, but onward they go, with little care about the mess they leave behind.
Three days ago, at the 2022 Academy Awards, the world watched — on repeat — one of Hollywood's biggest stars, Will Smith, assault a much less famous Chris Rock on stage when he joked about Smith's wife, actor Jada Pinkett Smith.
As the video made its rounds, memes were sketched, .gifs were made, comparisons were drawn, (more) jokes were cracked, and with every post that recreated the moment to find humour in it, the less of an issue it seemed to become on the internet.
Hot-takes were flung around faster than folks could think them through, sometimes conflating one issue with another. And while the world stepped aside from their regular lives to analyse Smith slapping a fellow artiste, what was lost among the most popular posts that my algorithm lets me see was the incident itself — of a man who assaulted another man on live television.
You may say I'm triggered; that I'm hopping onto the bandwagon of social media specialists who dissect the lives of these celebrities to determine which is worse — a Black man's benign joke about a Black woman's bald head (caused by an autoimmune disease) or that, in hitting a man, Smith "was defending his wife" (a reaction so deeply immersed in toxic masculinity, embedded in our patriarchies, that I simply cannot defend it). But I am not. I do not wish to tread there.
Instead, I want to talk about a powerful man (with a net worth of $350 million), who walked onto a live telecast of an international phenomenon, to hit another man because he didn't like the joke he cracked. I want to talk about violence as a primitive, and yet, typical assertion of power in a civilised society.
What soon followed only worsened the situation: The standing ovation that Smith received, when he won the award for best actor in a lead role as Richard Williams in King Richard. The crowd — full of revered actors whom many of us admire, even idolise — raised their glasses to Smith, and the show went on as planned.
Now, if you've watched the downfall of the Oscars as I have — infamous for goof ups, undeserving winners, a gross lack of representation — you wouldn't have been too surprised that another blunder hit the show. But from issues of inclusion to outright violence, the Academy's downfall comes from its silent complicity.
This is Hollywood in all its (ugly) glory. We must remember, it did not matter with Harvey Weinstein who once ran Hollywood and has been involved in 81 Oscar wins.
It did not matter with Gary Oldman.
Or Woody Allen.
Or Casey Affleck.
Or Marlon Brando.
Or Jack Nicholson.
Or Morgan Freeman.
Or Sean Penn.
Or Kevin Spacey.
Or Richard Dreyfuss.
Or John Wayne.
And I've only named some of the Oscar-winning and nominated actors who have violent pasts (and presents) — of physical, sexual, verbal, and emotional assault of varying degrees. And so, one of the biggest industries in the world has got us thinking that violence may actually be an acceptable expression of (toxic) manhood.
This is not to say that these men do not deserve a second chance after they chose to assault people. Retributive punishment is never the answer. What terrifies me most about the Smith incident is how quick we are to defend it or move past violence (much like we have done in the past), which only perpetuates it. (Note here that Will Smith's following on Instagram grew by almost two million followers in under 48 hours after the incident.)
As a young girl growing up at the turn of the millennium, apart from watching movies that continually changed my perspectives, shaped my personality, and moulded me in strange ways, Hollywood was also my lens into a world of people who were well within reach of a 70mm screen but inaccessible from where I stood. I always knew their power makes them unreachable, but I always wondered: Does that make them unquestionable?
We have continued, for years now, to watch our heroes rise to glorious heights on screen, and fall from grace off-screen, and yet, we keep watching. We choose, when it's convenient (for us and them), to separate art from the artist: Will Smith isn't the "Fresh Prince of Bel-Air". He isn't Dr Robert Neville who will invent the vaccine that wins the war against nocturnal beasts (I Am Legend). He isn't Chris Gardner who struggles with his young son to battle homelessness while he tries to sell his invention to big corporations (The Pursuit of Happyness). He is an actor, paid millions of dollars — whose power and fame we have contributed to — who hit a man three days ago.
So, what's stopping us from calling them out for wrongful behaviour? Why don't we condemn their acts of violence? Are the pedestals we built for them now too high for us to reach? Or have we become a people who feed off of them, making acceptable, not just their unbelievable exclusivity, but also the impunity that comes with it?
The system is rigged. It always has been. But we are the system. The fans, the fraternity, the filmmakers, and the film viewers. We have rigged this system, so that men walk around scot-free, promoting and monetising their brands and lifestyles for all of us to consume. We are hooked on keeping up with their lives. And then we justify their violence because our idols — both the Will Smiths, and the auditorium of spectators and applauders — have told us to. If Will Smith so swiftly and calculatedly slapped Chris Rock without a moment's hesitation, I can't help but wonder if he's done it before. Violence, the most extreme expression of power, doesn't stem from nothing.
Will Smith hit Chris Rock, went back to his seat, swore at him, and then minutes later, won an award for which the whole auditorium gave him a standing ovation. And in watching that, I was reminded of every single time a man has gotten away with violence simply because of the power that he holds.
I thought of MeToo.
I thought of domestic violence survivors.
I thought of young children whose fathers hit them.
I thought of violent boyfriends.
I thought of the bullies in my school.
And then I went full circle, because I finally thought of Ronan Farrow's unputdownable book, Catch and Kill, on Weinstein. And I couldn't help but realise that many of the actors who gave Smith a standing ovation minutes after he assaulted someone, applauded Weinstein until the very end of his career. Completely different degrees of violence, and yet, what unites them is their immunity (which finally ended when Weinstein was arrested).
I'd like to believe that someday, we as a people will rise to a crescendo, when it will be all too much — when too much power has been wielded, too much violence has been inflicted, and when too much toxic masculinity has been displayed.
Today, however, is not that day.
The views expressed are personal