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Will Smith is on ‘probation’ with Black Hollywood. But it may not last much longer

Photo illustration featuring Will Smith slapping Chris Rock
(Photograph by Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times; illustration by Los Angeles Times)
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The evening that Tyler Perry is calling one of his “most heartbreaking” happened eight months ago. But the memory is still fresh — and hurtful.

“I felt the pain of the Black people in the room,” Perry recalled. “It was one of the worst feelings I’ve ever had in a room full of Hollywood people.”

Perry, the phenomenally successful filmmaker and head of a massive media empire, was referring to this year’s Oscars ceremony, specifically the jaw-dropping moment at the Dolby Theatre — and on the global telecast — when Will Smith leaped from his seat, went onstage and struck Chris Rock moments after the comedian made a joke about Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. Less than an hour later, Smith mounted the stage again, this time making a tearful but awkward reference to the attack as he accepted the lead actor award for “King Richard.”

The incident became the dominant talking point of this year’s Academy Awards, ruining what, up to that point, was a powerful celebration of Black achievement and excellence. The show was led by a Black executive producer and featured two Black female co-hosts, numerous Black presenters and a standout musical performance by Beyoncé, in addition to the crop of Black nominees.

In the aftermath of the event, Smith attempted to explain and apologize for the assault before resigning his academy membership and subsequently being suspended from academy events, including the Oscars, for 10 years. Aside from a few pointed jabs early in his current comedy tour, Rock has defiantly refused to address the event. As a result, much of the initial furor subsided over the spring and summer, reentering the news cycle only occasionally — as when Smith posted an Instagram video addressing the slap in July.

Still a subject of heated debate within the Black creative community, centered on whether Smith should be saluted for standing up for his wife or condemned for striking a fellow Black entertainer, the slap has crept back into focus this fall as both Smith and Rock launch new high-profile endeavors.

Apple Original Films has timed the promotion and release of Smith’s new film “Emancipation” to awards season; the period thriller, which cost a reported $120 million to produce, premieres in theaters on Friday, followed by a Dec. 9 debut on Apple TV+. The film features the actor as an enslaved man embarking on a perilous journey to escape his oppressors and find freedom after Lincoln’s 1863 Emancipation Proclamation.

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Rock, for his part, is performing several local dates on his Ego Death World Tour, including a sold-out four-night stand earlier this month at the Dolby Theatre, the scene of the slap. He will appear in a live Netflix concert early next year that will be streamed globally, fueling speculation that he will use that platform to finally talk about the event in detail.

But the buzz behind these projects has also exposed a complicated reality within Black Hollywood: The slap still stings. Only now, the spirited debates that erupted for several weeks following the Oscars have been replaced with a more subdued discomfort, one that is more protected than public.

The director opens up about the brutal process of depicting an enslaved man on the run — and the controversy that threatens to overshadow his movie.

“We all love Chris Rock, and we all love Will Smith,” said Los Angeles-based photographer Carell Augustus, whose new book, “Black Hollywood: Reimagining Iconic Movie Moments,” features pictures of Black stars re-creating scenes from classic films. “I thought what Will did was unacceptable. It didn’t change how I view his talent, but it did change my perception of him. I thought he should have been apprehended and removed from the Oscars. I’ve had many conversations with actors, writer and directors who feel 100% the same way I do. But they will never go on the record.”

Lil Rel Howery illustrated the climate within Black creative circles in his new HBO special, “I Said It, Y'all Thinking It.” “I’m in Hollywood, and all this crazy s— is happening, especially with Black artists,” the comedian said as he talked about the incident during the performance, which was taped in Chicago. “Black people have a quiet way of talking about it. ‘Yeah, that happened. S—.’ White people are up in arms — ‘Oh my God, that was disgusting!’”

Howery went on: “That was f— up, and Will shouldn’t have slapped Chris. But I get it. It ain’t right, but I get it. Sometimes when a n— talk too much s—, he gets slapped. It is what it is.”

Several entertainment figures, including Perry, actor-comedian Tiffany Haddish, comedian George Wallace and actor-comedian-writer Franklyn Ajaye were willing to share their views on where they stand over the ramifications of the slap with The Times. Numerous others who were contacted did not respond or declined to comment.

Any desire simply to move on will become more difficult to achieve in the coming weeks as the awards campaign around “Emancipation” heats up. The lack of closure may even affect the film’s reception, particularly for Black people inside and outside the entertainment industry.

“I’m hopeful that there will be some forward movement, but I really don’t think that will happen until Chris says something, and until he talks about how he felt,” Perry said. “And that’s totally his decision when to, or not to. But I don’t think things will change on the Hollywood side until Chris starts to talk.”

Perry joined Dave Chappelle, Rihanna, “black-ish” creator Kenya Barris and other top celebrities for a Smith-hosted screening of “Emancipation” in October.

“What saddens me about ‘Emancipation’ is that if none of this had happened, Will would probably have been nominated this year,” Perry said. “The movie is phenomenal, and [director] Antoine Fuqua did a phenomenal job. I can’t speak for all of them, but I can tell you the temperature of Black people I talk to is that they are still in support of Will, but feel that what he did was wrong.”

He added, “There’s also those conversations within Hollywood with people who are not Black where there are Black people sitting at the table, and they say they don’t understand how Black people can be giving him standing ovations. But you have to understand our history — the Black community is very open and very forgiving when something happens. We galvanize together and try to give the grace and understanding.”

The comedian returned to the scene of the infamous incident at the Oscars nine months later for a four-night stand in L.A. as he wraps his Ego Death tour.

Whether that grace and understanding comes for Smith, and in time for “Emancipation’s” box office and awards prospects, may depend on viewers’ ability to separate Smith’s actions at the Oscars from his role in the historical drama.

Wallace, for instance, recalled being very upset after witnessing the slap: “I did say, ‘I love me some Will Smith, but not today.’ Good thing his mother wasn’t there. She would have probably beat his a—. I was so angry because Chris Rock is like one of my kids. When Will slapped Chris, he slapped me. And Chris will never, ever forget this moment.”

Still, the veteran comic continued, “I want to see ‘Emancipation.’ The community is going to be half and half. But if the movie is good, we will give him credit for it. Time heals all wounds. Will will be OK with time.”

Haddish, who came out in support of Smith following the incident, agreed. “When I saw it happen, it was like high school again. But Will is a good person. He had his little moment. I love Will Smith, and I love Chris Rock. That was crazy, but I feel if ‘Emancipation’ is a good movie, people will want to go see it. My friends still want to go see it. They’re not going to hold that against him.”

Augustus isn’t convinced. “I think it will be very hard for people to separate the Will Smith we thought we knew from the guy who jumped onstage and embarrassed Chris Rock in front of an estimated 1 billion people,” he said. “You just can’t spring back from that without a plea for forgiveness and a reckoning with yourself.” In particular, the photographer notes that there remains other unfinished business from the night of the slap, as Smith has never publicly apologized to Venus and Serena Williams, who developed and executive produced “King Richard,” the story about their father and coach. “Venus and Serena worked so hard to get that movie made, and they had their moment taken away,” he said.

Perhaps more important to “Emancipation’s” chances with Black audiences is its difficult subject matter, joining a string of projects during the last few years that have focused on brutal depictions of racist violence, including HBO’s “Watchmen” and “Lovecraft Country,” Prime Video’s “Them: Covenant” and the Oscar-winning short “Two Distant Strangers.” Several of these productions have provoked criticism of Hollywood for profiting off of “Black trauma porn.”

Ajaye, a comedian and former writer for “In Living Color” who has appeared in “Car Wash,” “Bridesmaids” and other films, said, “I don’t know how much more appetite Black people have to pay to see films about the horrors of slavery, unless Dave Chappelle and Jordan Peele team up to do the raucous slavery comedy ‘Uncle Tom’s Condo’ — which would be box office gold.”

But Ajaye, who resides in Melbourne, Australia, “because America is too crazy for me,” added that he does not feel the slap has ruined Smith’s career.

“If he’d slapped Barack Obama, that would’ve been different,” he said. “I don’t think he’s lost Black America. He hasn’t lost me. He’s on slap probation, so if he can go the next few years without slapping anybody in public, it’ll be expunged from his record, and all the tapes will be destroyed.”


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