Column: Will Smith was wrong to hit Chris Rock. But I understand

Chris Rock onstage at the Oscars
Chris Rock knows better than most what a minefield it is to joke about “good hair.”
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

It’s not right.

But I understand. That’s the punchline of Chris Rock’s infamous joke about O.J. Simpson:

“O.J.’s paying $25,000 a month in alimony … got another man driving around in his car and f— his wife in a house he’s still paying the mortgage on. Now I’m not saying he should have killed her … but I understand.”

I’m sure some folks might be disappointed that I’m not more outraged over Will Smith’s striking Rock at the Oscars. I guess when it comes to violence in this country, I prefer to save much of my anger for things like school shootings.


I wonder whether lessons from the ‘ugly stage’ prepared her for how she was treated by Republicans of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Besides, where I’m from, if you crack jokes about the medical condition of a man’s wife in front of him, you’re inviting trouble. Jada Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia, or hair loss.

“I can’t wait to see you in ‘G.I. Jane 2,’” Rock said onstage, referring to the 1997 film starring Demi Moore as a soldier with a shaved head.

You would think Rock — whose 2009 documentary, “Good Hair,” is all about the historical, cultural and economic effects of Black women’s relationship with their hair — would have celebrated Pinkett Smith for having the courage to walk the Oscars red carpet without hiding her condition.

Instead, he mocked her bravery at the Oscars. Again.

The first time was in 2016. Pinkett Smith was boycotting the award show over the lack of diversity in support of the online campaign #OscarsSoWhite. It was very similar to the Grammys boycott in 1989, the year the first hip-hop category was introduced. When DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince (Will Smith), Public Enemy, LL Cool J and Salt-N-Pepa opted not to attend the ceremony after learning it would not be televised. As life would have it, Will Smith would later tell “Entertainment Tonight,” the 1989 snub felt like a “slap in the face.”

Anyway, Rock greeted Pinkett Smith’s 2016 Oscar protest with this quip in his opening monologue: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.” He did also acknowledge Hollywood’s diversity issue — using his monologue to say the ceremony was “otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” — and there’s no question the #OscarsSoWhite movement changed the industry.

What I don’t understand is why Rock told that joke about Pinkett Smith on Sunday. There were a thousand different directions he could have gone.

“Black Panther,” one of the highest-grossing movies of all time, features a group of powerful, beautiful Black women with bald heads known as Dora Milaje. Considering Lupita Nyong’o, one of the film’s stars, was sitting next to the Smiths during the ceremony, that would have been a natural connection. But with the reference to “G.I. Jane,” a box office flop for which Moore won a Razzie award for worst actress, Rock seemed to be going for a very specific kind of laugh at Pinkett Smith’s expense.

Maybe the two families had bad blood before Sunday. Maybe the Smiths never forgave Rock for his 2016 remarks. On Monday evening, Smith apologized to Rock on Instagram, writing: “My behavior at last night’s Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable.”

We’re still left to wonder why Rock went after Pinkett Smith at all. She was just sitting there minding her own business.

I was reminded of Jane Campion, the director of “The Power of the Dog,” deciding to insult Serena and Venus Williams at the Critics’ Choice Awards this month, when there was no reason to bring them up at all.

I understand that seeing two Hollywood stars in a physical confrontation in a global broadcast is shocking. I certainly didn’t think Smith, who famously avoided using profanity in his music because his grandmother told him “truly intelligent people do not have to use words like this to express themselves,” would turn to violence to express himself. It is disappointing how his actions overshadowed so many positives of the night, including his own win for actor in a leading role.

But I am more shocked that Rock decided to mock a Black woman’s hair on the world stage, given the politics of Black hair that he himself documented. That’s not a pass for Smith. What he did is not something I want my 25-year-old son to emulate.

But there is a difference between growing up around Black women and being raised by them. The former hears, the latter listens. When you listen, I mean really listen, you understand that line attributed to Malcolm X: “The most disrespected person in America is the Black woman.” The slap is what monopolizes our attention, but that wasn’t the only form of violence that transpired in that scene.

Not saying Will Smith should have slapped Chris Rock … but I understand.