On Will Smith slapping Chris Rock and what I know about heroes and violence

Like Will Smith, I've been the slapper. And like Chris Rock, I've been slapped. Here's what I know about both roles

By D. Watkins

Editor at Large

Published April 6, 2022 6:00PM (EDT)

Chris Rock and Will Smith onstage during the show at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Chris Rock and Will Smith onstage during the show at the 94th Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre at Ovation Hollywood on Sunday, March 27, 2022. (Myung Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

"Jada, can't wait for G.I. Jane 2," a sharply dressed Chris Rock said to Jada Pinkett Smith in front of a packed house of celebrities and viewers at home watching the 94th Academy Awards ceremony. Will Smith, Jada's equally dapper, megastar husband, then made his way to the stage, power-walked toward the 57-year-old comedian, and right after Rock said, "Awwww, here comes Richard" — as in his Oscar-nominated role as the hero of "King Richard," as in Richard Williams, father of the famous tennis champion Williams sisters –– Smith cocked his arm back like granddad's rifle and slapped the taste out of Rock's mouth in what was maybe the best-dressed assault in the history of the Academy Awards.

"Baby, you see that?" my wife said to a half-asleep me. The slap woke me up.

"Oh hell no, that's not real," I said, wiping the sleep off of my face. "Would the Oscars stage a bit where two Black men fight, at the height of racial tension in the woke era? In 2022? Hell, no. Rewind it!"  

"I think it's real." 

As Smith walked back to his seat, Rock said, "Will Smith just slapped the shit out of me." 

Then Smith yelled, "Keep my wife's name out your f**kin' mouth!" Viewers at home couldn't hear that part in real-time; it was censored. Of course, Twitter and Instagram provided uncensored versions. The scene was as ugly as we thought it was. 

 * * *

So many think pieces have been written about this incident since it happened — some bad, some very bad — so I'm not going to waste your time talking about how gracious it was of Chris Rock to protect Smith from the LAPD in that vulnerable moment, or about Will Smith's apology and his decision to withdraw from the Academy, a self-inflicted punishment that didn't fit the crime. (Maybe take a year off, but don't resign entirely.)

RELATED: Will Smith and the function of a slap – what it means for comedy and comedians

I also will not be doing a deep dive into Will Smith's journey of masculinity and self-acceptance he wrote about in his memoir "Will"; or Chris Rock's job as a comedian, work that historically has been made from poking fun at the insecurities of others and their own; and how our society is full of hypocrites (me included) because we all pick and choose the jokes we want to laugh at. Jokes about LeBron James' hairline are apparently acceptable; jokes about Jada's are not. That's how comedy is now, and that's how it's always been — the only non-policeable genre of art, up until people want to police it. 

I don't want to debate. I also don't want to demonize Smith or Rock.

Any take on comedy or the Oscars or the parties involved can be debated and even proven wrong by people with different life experiences and perspectives. We are all complex, multi-layered beings. So I don't want to debate. I also don't want to demonize Smith or Rock. The way I see it, they are both victims of America's obsession with the hero's journey. 

Arguments have been flying over who was the hero of the moment. Was it Smith for standing up for his wife? Rock for being fearless in his comedy first, and then for not pressing charges? But my main concern is our obsession with being the hero, the role violence plays in that obsession, and how it never really works out in real life the way Hollywood shows us. 

RELATED: I grew up surrounded by toxic masculinity, but I evolved: We have to give people a chance to grow

When I have tried to tell my childhood friends, on more than one occasion — usually over drinks — that I was bullied when we were kids, they laugh hysterically, exposing every tooth in their big giggling mouths.

"Boy, you had all the Nikes and all the Jordans," they fire back. "No one picked on you!"  

And yes, I had some very nice things — things that often attracted the wrong kind of attention. Someone would see me shining, or witness a young girl — maybe a girl they had a crush on — admiring me and my budding adolescent fashion sense and want to fight. So I had to fight. 

Every man in every movie, sitcom and cartoon I watched either completed their hero's journey or died trying.

My first brawl was with a kid named Burger. On a beautiful summer day, he body-slammed me, Hulk Hogan-style, about a foot deep into the concrete after I tried to stop him from bullying another friend. Initially, I didn't fight back. I allowed Burger and everyone else on the block that day to laugh at me while calling me all kinds of a chump for not defending myself. Burger knocked me completely off my neighborhood's food chain. I hid out in my room for a couple of days, watching TV shows and movies, including Will Smith's "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and Chris Rock's "New Jack City." And I noticed that every man in every movie, sitcom and cartoon I watched — even Rock and Smith –– either completed their hero's journey or died trying. 

Maybe you're reading this thinking, "There is no way Rock played a hero in 'New Jack City.' Cut it out!" Let me explain. 

Chris Rock's character Pookie had the ultimate hero's journey in "New Jack City." We meet Pookie at the opening of the film; he starts as a stickup kid. And we can easily assume he wasn't robbing for the pure pleasure of it: he didn't attack a working citizen or a helpless grandma. He attacked a drug dealer who wanted to poison our community with crack. That's hero work. The drug dealer in question happened to be an undercover police officer played by Ice-T, who shot a poor kid just trying to feed his family. Pookie was so much of a hero that he even threw the cash he stole from Ice-T onto a playground full of kids forced to grapple with the whole of poverty. Hero. 

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Pookie didn't just go away after the intro, either; he fell on hard times and started using crack as a result of Ice-T's police violence. Ice-T, who by now has made friends with notorious drug dealer Nino Brown, finds Pookie on Thanksgiving Day and beats him up again. Pookie earned this whipping, though, because he was yelling at a woman, making Ice-T the hero. But Pookie wasn't done. In true hero fashion, he beat his crack addiction, graduated from rehab and volunteered to go undercover into the dangerous drug organization in an effort to get crack off of the streets: that's a hero move. He died trying to save inner-city kids from Nino, Ice-T and crack. God bless Pookie, a true American hero. 

A hero's journey is pretty simple: a character — traditionally a man — is faced with a great challenge, but he's filled with doubt up until he decides to abandon the doubt, conquer the challenge and accept his hero status. Burger, the boy who beat me up, was on the other end of my hero's journey. If I didn't defeat him, I would never be able to go outside again. I would let myself down along with the group of imaginary people who needed me to save them from the wrath of Burger. So I slipped a padlock into a long tube sock, tied that sock into a tight knot, and used it to beat a chunk of meat out of Burger's head, thereby reclaiming my space on the food chain. The corner went wild. I was the hero.

I don't know how Will Smith feels, but I imagine his inner arc might have been similar to mine: triumphant when he approached the stage, sure. But what people are not talking about is how Smith might have felt after the slap. I can't speak for Smith, but I know I felt horrible after hitting Burger with the lock. Not like a hero — more like a villain. What felt even more horrible is that I would continue to perform similar acts of violence for at least two decades after that incident. 

* * *

There were times I was the slapper. There was Burger. Then there was this guy named Andre I slapped for stealing my bike. I slapped my friend Todd's father after he stole our Sega Genesis, slapped Chico for slapping my cousin Lo, slapped Ira because his face was slap-able, slapped my gym teacher for saying, "Watkins, I'll f**k you up!" Slapped my cousin Angelo, slapped the dude Kelly from across the street for slapping Angelo, slapped Fat Del for disrespecting my aunt, slapped Hugie while he was slapping my cousin, slapped Dress Code on the block, slapped Sam, slapped Sam Jr., slapped a photographer at a college who disrespected a young woman, slapped myself to stop myself from slapping a local reporter, and slapped a Black Republican after a panel discussion at Columbia University. I slapped a white man in a bar, slapped an older white man at a protest, slapped Wiz for allowing me to get slapped at a Project Reunion party and slapped Big House for breaking up the fight. And boy did my palms sting.

Let's skip past the times my dad or uncle slapped me for crying –– even though those slaps stung hard enough for me to take a couple of decades off from shedding tears.

Then there were the times I was the one slapped. Let's skip past the times my dad or uncle slapped me for crying –– even though those slaps stung hard enough for me to take a couple of decades off from shedding tears. Of course, my mother slapped me in the market for mouthing off. God, her hands were quick. Then there were all the slaps I took from police officers, especially in the '90s and early 2000s, the golden years for slapping young Black men. Burger slapped me silly more than once. My cousin Angelo slapped me back with a baby oil-doused hand, my cousin Kevin and I slapped each other senseless for about an hour, back and forth to see who would tap out first, and I can't remember who won but I remember the pain.

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A whole family slapped me on a sunny day after I disrupted their family reunion — it seemed like hitting me brought them closer together. I was slapped by a bouncer in a club for dunking a basketball: "The hoop is for decoration, aesthetic, no dunking!" But I was young and nimble and — define aesthetic — so I slammed the ball again away. And boy oh boy did my jaw sting after that.

And from all of those slaps, I learned nothing at all except the one fact I learned after slapping that chunk of bloody flesh off Burger's head with that sock-lock. Hitting people does not make you a hero. It does not bring joy, happiness or healing. It does nothing more than temporarily feed your ego. So if you can, please keep your hands to yourself, because the juice ain't worth the squeeze.

Those of us watching from the audience — we take-havers and we side-pickers —  need to check ourselves as well. Why are we so quick to name a hero in a fight, especially when they're causing pain to another person?

More stories about the aftermath of the 94th Academy Awards: 

By D. Watkins

D. Watkins is an Editor at Large for Salon. He is also a writer on the HBO limited series "We Own This City" and a professor at the University of Baltimore. Watkins is the author of the award-winning, New York Times best-selling memoirs “The Beast Side: Living  (and Dying) While Black in America”, "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," "Where Tomorrows Aren't Promised: A Memoir of Survival and Hope" as well as "We Speak For Ourselves: How Woke Culture Prohibits Progress." His new books, "Black Boy Smile: A Memoir in Moments," and "The Wire: A Complete Visual History" are out now.

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Academy Awards Chris Rock Commentary Oscars Will Smith