I can’t believe I just saw Will Smith strike Chris Rock at the Academy Award presentations! Rock told a joke about Smith’s wife, who was also in the audience. At first, I thought it was staged. Then, the sound was muted by ABC, as obvious words were being spoken between Smith and Rock that are not appropriate for family viewing. The entire mood of the Oscars presentation was changed for the rest of the evening. Later in his speech, Smith compared himself to Richard Williams, the character he played in his Oscar winning performance. Smith spoke of love and how he is protecting his family like the Richard Williams protected his daughters.
When I spoke with my African American friends about the incident, we were divided. Some believe Rock deserved it. Others feel that violence is not the way to solve problems. I stand in the latter camp.
For the longest time, the work of African American actors was not appreciated by the Academy. The first Oscar to a black actor was in 1939 to Hattie McDaniel. The second came in 1963 to Sidney Poitier. In 1982, Lou Gossett, Jr received best supporting actor. Of the hundreds of acting roles by African Americans from 1939 to 1982, a period of forty-three years, only 3 African Americans received a competitive academy award for acting.
In her book, The Disordered Cosmos: A Journey into Dark Matter, Spacetime, & Dreams Deferred, Chanda Prescod-Weinstein writes, “Black people are denied ownership over our own labor, whether that means the historical theft of labor through kidnapping and slavery, or the creative work that has undergirded so much of American cultural production. Because our ownership is denied, the value and fact of our labor as our labor, is rendered invisible.”
Since 1982, fifteen African Americans have won Oscars for acting. Maybe the protests and social media pressure to acknowledge the contributions of African Americans is finally bearing fruit. Society is experiencing and appreciating the great work these and other African Americans are doing in film.
Then Will Smith strikes Chris Rock. What does this say about African American men and their relationship with one another? Is there still a place for a narrative of the protective male? What assumptions and stereotypes does this act play into regarding African American men and anger, violence, and self-control?
As the Presbytery of Chicago continues to struggle with racial representation and appreciation, we are using CARE to help us negotiate these troubling waters. We are challenged to resist negative stereotypes and racial prejudices and to see people for who they are. We all have work to do on our internal issues, both anger and racism. By God’s grace we will become a beloved community of kindness and love.
Rev. Craig M. Howard