I have an idea for a little thought experiment. Imagine, just for a moment or two, that Oscar-winning actor Will Smith — protector of families and a river to his people — was married to Supreme Court nominee Ketanji Brown Jackson.
And when Smith took his front row seat to watch her Senate confirmation hearings, he fumed as Lindsey Graham continuously badgered and interrupted Jackson, grew angrier as he watched Ted Cruz grill Jackson on the trumped-up charge that she approved of teaching children that white babies were racist, and, by now fuming, had his eyes locked onto Josh Hawley as he spouted the Q-flavored, bizarre and unsupportable Big Lie of the hearings that Jackson had a soft spot for child pornographers.
At which point do you think Smith would have walked up to one of the offending senators, slapped him across the face and told him to keep his wife’s name out of his bleeping mouth?
I mean, Chris Rock may have made a lame — and hurtful — ad-libbed joke about Smith’s real wife’s shaved head during the Academy Awards, but these senators were out for blood — and not for laughs.
If I had to pick a politician to slap/punch, I’d probably go with Ted Cruz just because he’s, well, Ted Cruz, certainly the most disliked senator of his generation (see: testimony from Bennet, Michael). And while I’ve interviewed Cruz a few times, listened to him demagogue on a few issues, I never had the urge to slap him, knowing I’d be arrested, jailed and, not incidentally, fired if I did.
And, besides, I don’t need to physically slap anyone because I am fortunate enough to write a column in which, inevitably, I get to throw the last rhetorical punch.
In his dramatic speech, linked above, Bennet chose not to slap Cruz — they used to occasionally cane each other in Congress, but that was before C-SPAN — but to punish him with a 20-minute speech, portraying Cruz as a hypocrite and worse.
Now let’s go back to the Oscars ceremony. Because this is America, Joe Biden’s ad-libbed gaffe suggesting in a Warsaw speech last Saturday that Vladimir Putin must not remain in power — potentially pushing Putin to further escalate the war in Ukraine — was almost immediately overtaken by the stunning live-action, expletive-laden conflict between two Hollywood stars.
At first, we assumed the slap was shtick. Then the bleeping again, and it started to become obvious that Smith was not joking around. And then we heard about the backstory and how there was history here. At the 2016 Oscars, Rock had made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith’s boycott of the #OscarsSoWhite ceremony.
If Will Smith weren’t a celebrity, but just one of the seat-fillers, he’d have been frog-marched out of the auditorium. Instead, he stayed where he was, and about 40 minutes later, he would win, as everyone expected, his first Oscar for best actor in a movie, in this case for his performance in “King Richard” as the volatile and controversial father of Serena and Venus Williams.
In his tearful, and self-serving. acceptance speech, Smith — whose celebrity has been built on his carefully nurtured nice-guy image — apologized to everyone except to Chris Rock. But the blowback had reached the point that Smith eventually made a full-blown apology to Rock on Instagram, and Pinkett Smith — the subject of the joke — said it was time for healing. And Richard Williams said, through his son, that there’s never an excuse for hitting anyone except in self-defense.
At the Senate hearings, Judge Jackson did have one senator eloquently stand up for her against the string of bogus attacks from Graham, Cruz, Hawley, et al. And that was Cory Booker, who said, as Jackson wiped away tears, “You got here how every Black woman in America has gotten anywhere has done, by being … like Ginger Rogers said, ‘I did everything Fred Astaire did, but backwards in heels.’ So I’m just sitting here saying nobody’s stealing my joy. Nobody’s gonna make me angry.”
It was moving, it was joyful and it made Judge Jackson’s accusers look just the way they did look — angry and small.
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Now imagine if Smith hadn’t slapped anyone. As Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote in a very smart piece, slapping someone to defend your wife’s honor against mere words is not brave or protective. It’s paternalistic, a throwback to the concept of damsels in distress — a “slap,” Abdul-Jabbar wrote, not just to Rock, but to women.
Imagine instead that when he won his Oscar, he took the stage to say that no one would steal his joy that night, or the joy of his family, or the joy of Richard Williams and his world-famous daughters. He would explain the cruelty of the joke about Pinkett Smith and how she suffered from a medical condition called alopecia, which causes hair loss, and now keeps her head shaved. Pinkett Smith has been very public about the disease, but I don’t know if Rock knew about it or not. As of this writing, he hasn’t publicly commented.
But obviously Rock knows about how Black women have long been the butt of racist jokes about their hair and about their appearance. Just think back to what Michelle Obama had to endure as First Lady.
As one friend pointed out to me, Smith could have been the hero, the role he is used to playing, and could have made his own joke about how hard it is to just sit back and take a joke about someone you love.
Comedians cross lines all the time that the rest of us wouldn’t dare. Part of the job is to be not simply funny, but outrageously so. And Chris Rock is among the very best. But if Smith had taken his cue from Cory Booker, Rock would have been the one who had to explain what comics do, why they do it and maybe even admit the joke wasn’t very funny. And Will Smith would still be recognizably Will Smith.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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