Oscars 2022: Will Smith vs. Chris Rock through the eyes of a Times photographer
Veteran Los Angeles Times photographer Myung J. Chun was on assignment at the 94th Oscars on Sunday, capturing the show with three cameras from within the projection booth at the back of the house (along with about 10 other shooters from various outlets). About two hours in, comedian Chris Rock came out to present the award for documentary feature and made a joke about actress Jada Pinkett Smith‘s nearly bald head. Chun was switching cameras during the next moment, which turned out to be the most harrowing in Oscar history.
“I always get a little squeamish when it’s a personal joke,” says Chun. “So I was like, ehhh. Going into this, I didn’t know about Jada’s condition [the actress suffers from alopecia, an autoimmune condition that can cause hair loss]. So I didn’t know exactly why her head was shaved until later. But I still thought, ‘That’s a bit uncomfortable.’ ”
No one expected what came next. The shooter took that moment to switch cameras — just as a figure moved onto the stage.
“I was on one camera, shooting tight, single shots of Chris Rock. I moved off [to another camera] and saw the silhouette of someone walking on stage. I thought it was a stage manager or someone from production. Then someone in our group said, ‘Hey, that’s Will Smith.’ I was bringing up the other camera to shoot a little looser; as I was bringing it up, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the swing happening.”
Superstar Will Smith, the odds-on favorite to win his first Oscar that night, had slapped Rock, hard across the face.
“I got on it and shot what I could, but I missed the swing by a fraction of a second. I got the aftermath, with the reaction and the face and the body language. But for me, it was a pretty terrible time to be switching cameras.
“The image that ran, that was the first frame. If I’d gotten the camera up a quarter of a second faster, I would have had the swing.”
He heard the contact, like a muffled microphone being hit.
“I thought it was a gag. Everybody [in the booth] did. It seemed so unreal. Then you hear the first f-bomb when [Smith] had gone back to his seat — at that point, I’m still thinking, ‘This is a gag; they’re going to bleep that out.’
“But the second time he dropped an f-bomb, when he was yelling at him at the top of his lungs and we could hear it live in the projection booth way in the back of the theater, that’s when I thought, ‘Hey, maybe this thing is real. Will Smith is really angry.’
“The theater got really quiet. That’s when everything changed. The whole mood changed.
Just moments after slapping presenter Chris Rock hard on live television, Will Smith found himself in tears as he gave his acceptance speech for winning the Oscar for best actor for his performance in “King Richard.”
“We realized he was really upset. He really hit Chris Rock. The mood sort of sank at that point and everyone realized it was a pretty serious matter.”
Chun realized something newsworthy was happening. He stayed on Smith.
“Just shoot as much as you can, photograph reactions. When they went to commercial, I was photographing Denzel Washington talking to him. [Fellow Philadelphian] Bradley Cooper got up, talked to Will Smith, put his hands on him to calm him down. You just keep shooting.
“As everyone had noticed when Questlove went up for his documentary Oscar — what a time to go up and win your award, after this had happened. The entire mood had changed. It went from something that was fun and entertaining to a total downer: ‘What did we just see?’ A guy just got [hit] on the Oscar stage on live TV. Totally killed the mood.”
There was plenty of confusion in the moment, and it spilled over into the meme-verse. Earlier that evening, Chun had grabbed an instantly memorable shot of actress Nicole Kidman reacting energetically to something. That image quickly started getting passed around the internet as “Nicole Kidman reacts to the slap.” Not even close, says Chun.
“During the non-televised portion of the Oscars [the pre-show in which eight categories were awarded before the main ceremony], I was scouring the room and saw Nicole Kidman. She had that great reaction — mouth open, arms up. She put her arms out and soon after, Jessica Chastain came over and greeted her. It wasn’t a reaction to the slap. It’s a funny meme, but that’s totally not true. Jessica Chastain was a sight to behold — It’s exciting, but on a different level.”
Chun has been to 12 Oscar ceremonies, often capturing arrivals. In his more than three decades as a professional photographer, he has seen a lot at these big events, but nothing like what happened on this night.
“Seeing someone get attacked at the Oscars — by a colleague, a fellow actor — that’s something I’d never seen before and hopefully I’ll never see again. That moment was so incredible — different, unique, shocking — at an event that was supposed to celebrate their achievements. I’d never experienced anything like that at any Oscars I’d shot before. I’d shot a lot of red carpet, and that’s very scripted and managed. They try to minimize off-script actions.”
Smith may have his regrets. Rock may have his regrets. Chun has his, as well.
“I wish I’d been a quarter of a second faster, that earlier moment, fractionally early — that’s going to eat at me for a long time, I’m going to have to live with that. I just hope, going forward, nothing like this happens again.
“The image that stood out from the whole event was Chris Rock [after he’d been slapped], seeing his facial expression. That’s the image that stood out.”
From the Oscars to the Emmys.
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