It Hits Different

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S1: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Everyone who expected the Oscars to be the same boring show got a big surprise this year. That’s because Will Smith showed Chris Rock just how little he likes a joke that was aimed at his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.

S2: Will Smith to smack the shit out of me.

S1: The slap that launched a thousand tweets and think pieces has reignited real debates about toxic masculinity and what it means to protect black women.

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S3: What he did was wrong, and I believe it will probably be the biggest learning moment of his career. And I’m really excited that we can sit back and learn with him.

S1: Will Smith, the slap that rocked the Oscars and what it means in the black community, coming up on a word with me, Johnson. Stay with us. Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. There have already been memorable moments at the Oscars Sunday night, the historic wins for Afro-Latina, Ariana Debose and deaf actor Troy Cox are among them. When comedian Chris Rock took the mic to announce the award for Best Documentary Feature, but not before he let loose with a couple of jokes and one that maybe he’d like to take back. About Jada Pinkett Smith.

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S2: Jada, I love you deejaying, too. Can’t wait to see it.

S1: We all know what happened next. Smith calmly walked to the stage, maybe calmly slapped Rock across the face and went back to his seat, then proceeded to curse at him from said seat. Folks in the audience seemed confused about whether it was part of the show. Until Smith had his say from the audience. Mark But.

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S2: Nothing else. You fucking know I’m going to. Okay.

S1: Days have passed. Apologies have been presented. Apologies have been asked for. But the debate about the moment rages on. Was it a display of vanity and toxic masculinity was a rare and necessary defense of a black woman who was suffering an insult. Was it the ultimate example of cancel culture? Joining us to unpack all this is entertainment journalist Chris Witherspoon. I’m so excited. He’s the founder and CEO of Pop Viewers, an entertainment platform that helps people figure out what to watch next. Chris Witherspoon, welcome to Albert Jason Johnson.

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S3: Thank you for having me on. To give you a word or two or three.

S1: When you heard about what happened with Chris Rock and Will Smith, were you watching the show live and what was your immediate reaction?

S3: Jason I was hosting a little watch party at my house. I had about five of my friends here and we were stunned. We screamed. They were five black gay men, so we can scream loud. Child. Okay. We screened so loudly and at first we all thought it was a bit, you know. Well, what I know is a journalist is that the Oscars are desperate for ratings to improve, bringing in Will Packer packing this show with so many great black stars and will become a leaning into the culture of now, which is people of color. I thought, okay, this is one more bit that we’re going to all be talking about tomorrow morning and when Will gets up for his speech or at some point this will be cleared up. But when I saw that man sitting in the audience yelling and cursing and there was no mic on him, and I could verbally see what he was saying. I knew then that it was not a bit.

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S1: One question that I had initially was, you know, lots of people thought, oh, well, was this pre-arranged by Chris Rock? And it was already written out as opposed to something he’d just kind of set off the cuff.

S3: Well, you know, that that part I think Chris is probably a genius that in prime oftentimes when they’re, you know, watching a show or behind the scenes, they’re going to see what Wanda Sykes is wanted and give him her jokes beforehand. They’re going to see what Amy Schumer, Regina Hall, says would have been the jokes that have been done already. How is the room reading right now? Where’s everyone seated? And I guarantee you, Chris is so good on his feet. He probably was looking on Twitter, looking at what folks were saying about different looks and such and whatnot. And he might have improv that joke. You know, we haven’t heard from Chris Rock, so we don’t know for sure. But I would not be surprised if that was a joke that just for him felt right in the room at that moment.

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S1: And speaking of being in the room, you know what these these high profile events are like. You know how it feels for people to be there. You know what the excitement level is one way or another. Just from the people who you’ve talked to, who I know you’ve talked to people who were there, I know you were looking at the face of the audience. How do you think this sat with Lupita Nyong’o, who’s become a meme or Jay-Z or Beyonce? Like, what did you pick up from the reactions of black celebrities to what Will Smith did to Chris Rock?

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S3: I mean, saw Lupita. Lupita was stunned. She was frozen. She was going as a sheer just like the movie us, you know, want to see. Right. Right. Like she was giving us us tear up.

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S1: She was untethered.

S3: She was untethered. But I think what also was super important, I’ve been able to access a feed that showed after the incident two prominent black actors, Tyler Perry, he pulled Will Smith up and took him off to the side and began talking to him. And Denzel Washington walked up out of his seat and joined Tyler Perry. And these two black men who are giants. They are giants in Hollywood right now. They took wall to the side. And I really believe that Tyler probably tried to give him his his sort of spiritual guidance moment. And more importantly, Denzel Washington said what he said about when you were at your height. That’s when the devil tries to bring you low. That was a part of Boseman’s acceptance speech. And on Will’s way back to his seat, Bradley Cooper also grabbed him and put both hands on his shoulders and spoke to him for a little bit. So I think it’s it’s telling that these men who were in the room that probably relate in many ways to to the tense nature of the Oscar campaign and all that you give and you kind of get burnt out multiple whenever you’re campaigning, you’re doing a press tour like you’ve never done in your life. I think that there. They relate to where Smith was in that moment. And also, he couldn’t handle the joke. He couldn’t handle the joke.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break and we come back more on slap gate at this year’s Oscars. This is a word we Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and liked what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to a podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with entertainment journalist Chris Witherspoon about the fallout from Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. Chris, this is something else that I found fascinating as an outside observer and really want to hear your insights on this dynamic of sort of mainstream versus black Hollywood elites. Right. You know, Will Smith is one of the most powerful people, regardless of color in Hollywood. At the same time, Chris Rock is basically the greatest comedian of a generation. And so you’ve got these very powerful men. But Will is still more powerful than him. And yet Denzel and Tyler Perry are the guys who come in and sort of negotiate this issue. What does this say about how black Hollywood kind of operates differently than mainstream Hollywood? Because I thought that was a big part of this.

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S3: You know, I think that black Hollywood, in many ways, they navigate from a space of being really new to this level of privilege. And by a level of privilege, I mean that privilege to stand in power, privilege to stand in anger. I know so often being in Hollywood as a black man, getting to work for big, powerful companies like NBCUniversal, CNN, and also before that, working for powerful executives at these companies. You often had this. I’m happy to be here syndrome where you just happy to be in the room. You don’t really flex too much. You don’t really say it’s too hot in here or too cold in here or what you just said, rub me the wrong way. But at a certain point, you begin to recognize I deserve to be in this room. I deserve to to take the mic and say what I have to say. And I feel like will Chris Rock, Tyler Perry, these actors are at a place now where they’ve transitioned from being happy to be here. And so these folks are finally recognizing that they’re very powerful and they don’t have to put up with things that they don’t want to put up with. Right. One more thing, Jason. I mean, will he, at 22 years old, got the fresh prince of Bel Air? He was a baby in many ways. He was new to this whole experience of being in Hollywood. We saw during their Fresh Prince reunion how him and Janet Hubert, who’s my good friend, had to come to terms about how he acted on set. You know, he was a bit of a brat, insecure. He talked about that. He owned up to it. But Jason, also in his twenties, this man when he was 27 years old, had the number one movie in the country, Bad Boys. It made $141 million. 28. He had Independence Day. $817 million. 29 men in black. $589 million. Will Smith. He blew up before he had a chance to really grow up. So you have to recognize he at 33 years old, he’s having a learning moment that a lot of us get to have at 23 before the whole world.

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S1: The social media has allowed so many people to do hot takes, but there are actual journalists out here, entertainment journalists, who know what they’re talking about who can contextualize this. You know, Chris, you created pop viewers. Tell me a little bit about what we’ve seen online in journalistically since The Slap, because a lot of people have been talking about the fact that black media and black journalists and black thought leaders have one completely separate set of conversations. And in some respects, it seems like a lot of white outlets or white writers or white thought leaders are trying to insert themselves into what may be a family conversation.

S3: Oh, come on. I love that phrase. And first off, thank you for mentioning pop viewers before we tear will down. And I’ve seen more white journalists try to tear him down right now. We have to recognize that he’s had to fight in a different way to even get to the doors that he’s at. So I think it’s important to try to empathize with him. I mean, Oprah wrote a book recently. It’s called What Happened to You? It came out about a year ago. She worked with a guy named Bruce Perry. And it’s really about any time someone has a moment of aggression, anger, they lash out. It’s not about what they’re lashing out in that moment. It’s about what happened to you. So I feel like people need to stop talking about that moment. The only one bad moment Will Smith has had really his entire career and recognize that this moment stems on some work that he’s not really done to to kind of pull out a thorn or a splinter that might be from 20, 30 years ago. You know, that he’s finally having the space to now he had an eruption. It wasn’t the joke. The joke was just like the thing that got him up there. But I think it was much deeper than that. Now he has the space to kind of do the healing work that we have to recognize black actors, black talent deserved because. SHARP Alec Baldwin, he didn’t lashed out at anybody, any mama. He stayed busy, booked and blessed.

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S1: Right. Right. You know, I’m glad you mentioned that, the sort of past history, because it’s amazing the past clips that have come out online. There’s a clip of Chris Rock dressed as a woman on an episode of The Fresh Prince. There’s clips of Chris Rock with Jerry Seinfeld and Louis C.K., you know, talking. But there’s all all sorts of. Clips have been coming out in the past, but the most important one is back from 2016, when Jada Pinkett and others were boycotting the Oscars and Chris Rock made a series of jokes about her being there. Here’s the clip.

S2: Jada, boycotting the Oscars was like me, boycotting Rihanna’s panties.

S1: I wasn’t invited. Now to me, I think it’s a reductionist thing to say, Oh, this had been boring for five years between Chris Rock and and and Will Smith. But the question that I want to ask you, Chris, is we’ve had discussions about Will Smith and the pain he’s going through and what may be happening with him. You also have Chris Rock, who was simply doing his job and got attacked. How do you think the press coverage of him has looked and do you think there’s enough discussion about the challenges that he faces as a black comedian in majority white world?

S3: I think that the incident that happened is a moment for us to really unpack what it is to be on the stage and be a comedian, to be a black comedian in particular. That has to get into these rooms. And when you’re a comedian, you want to talk about what you know. You want to go and pull the stories from your community. And so often that’s what Chris Rock is doing. Chris Rock, I think, made such a great name for himself in Hollywood is he gets on stages and talks about the black experience in a way that makes white audiences comfortable. You’re talking about the 2016 Oscars. That was a really, really important ceremony. I’ll never forget I was covering it for CNN and Jada Pinkett Smith speaking out about the lack of black nominees. This was a year, literally the year after the OscarsSoWhite hashtag. It happened. It was a really important moment. And for me, I was proud of the Smiths. I recognized that the Academy still had a long way to go, and they overlooked a really important piece of work. And when Chris Rock got on that stage, it really felt like he was pandering more towards all the white folks in tuxedos, in suits and dresses that night. He wasn’t thinking about all the black actors who were at home who were boycotting not only Jada and Wil, but other folks who have been looked over for amazing work for decades. So I think now we have to have a larger discussion around what it is to get on a stage, the power of having that microphone, the power of being in front of so many very groups of people around the world that are watching and what is okay to talk about. You mentioned earlier you didn’t use this phrase, but kitchen table talk. That’s something in the black community that we get to do at our own kitchen tables. We don’t go and do that in front of, I think, certain audiences. And I really feel like that was the kitchen table conversation that will probably would not smack them for at the kitchen table. But I believe it was a cut in front of the whole world. He disrespected his wife.

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S1: So when I saw the answer that eventually when I saw the video, I thought to myself, wow, that is a long walk from Will Smith, where he was sitting next to Jada with Lupita Nyong’o. That was a long walk to the stage. He had a long time to think about what he did. There was security there. He could have been stopped. And what I tweeted at the time was, I don’t think he does this to a white comedian. However, I do think that Chris Rock would have made that same joke about Scarlett Johansson. I think if Scarlett Johansson had been sitting there bald. Chris Rock would have said, Oh, hey, you know, she went from Black Widow to G.I. Jane to like, I think there’s a racial dynamic here about how comfortable Will Smith was in doing what he was doing as opposed to Chris Rock. Am I right in that assessment or what do you think of that hypothetical?

S3: I agree. And I think sometimes that I’ll make it personal for me. You know, when a black person makes fun of me, you know, if I’m walking down the street and I’m switching a little bit too hard serving to look to a little bit too much, I call me out. A black person makes a homophobic slur towards me that hits me on a whole different level than a white person. Because a black person, you’re my brother, you know, like you’re my sister. You’re supposed to go to see me and recognize that we are in this struggle together. I think for Wale, Chris Rock is someone he’s probably known for decades and also will probably saw someone who really is, you know, his brother in Hollywood, who this is not the first time he’s taken the microphone and had a little bit of time. He’s had made a point to tear him and his family down. You know, so I think that for Will, it was it was even more personal because Chris Rock is part of his community, part of our community, part of Jada’s community, a contemporary in a way that’s different than James Corden, a contemporary this that’s different than Jimmy Kimmel. This is a someone who’s a part of our community, a part of the black community. And it hits different, as the kids say, you know, is things different? I don’t think Will Smith, before Chris Rock got on the stage, said if he comes and talks about me or my wife, I’ma smack him. I really think he had one of those out of body experiences. And I’m so curious to hear what he talks about. It’s been announced that they’re doing a red table talk with Jada and Will, and I’m assuming Jada will interview Will, but I’m curious to really hear him explain what went through his mind on the walk up and on the walk. Back to your point, that walk back when I was watching it, it was like that walk back lasted 2 minutes, but it was a little short walk back. Right. It really seemed like he he kept his composure. He walked back and in a way where he didn’t look back and say, oh, my God, I just did that.

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S1: We’re going to take a short break. We come back more with entertainment journalist Chris Witherspoon. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with entertainment journalist Chris Witherspoon about the Oscar confrontation between Chris Rock and Will Smith. Will Smith has released an apology. He apologized on stage when he got his Oscar for King Richard. Then he had a very public apology that I’m sure 12 publicists got together, you know, around a pot and created. We have not yet gotten an apology from Chris Rock, but what we do know is that Chris Rock is actually on the road performing new stand up this week. As an entertainment journalist, I know you would want to be in that number for the first shows. What do you think Chris Rock is going to say and how is he going to you know, what’s his response going to be? Because clearly he ain’t trying to do the apology. He’s going to have this come out in his standup.

S3: Yeah. And I think that Chris Rock will probably take a page from another famous, iconic black comedian who over the past 12 months, I believe, has has been a target of public criticism for his work. And that’s Dave Chappelle. Nick, about the questions there, the his his Netflix special that aired a few months ago, think about all the backlash that he got for what he said. And I think what he said on the closer was more problematic in many ways. And that little joke that Chris Rock made and it was seen by millions of folks around the world, Netflix was there were boycotts. There was a walkout at Netflix. The LGBTQ plus employees walked out. It was on every news channel for about seven days. And Dave Chappelle did nothing. He gave little comments at his comedy specials. He didn’t talk to the press. Right. You know, he just talks on the stage. It’s made what Dave Chappelle says next what his next specials are going to be almost even more important. So I think Chris Rock and his team probably are like, look, listen, there’s a blueprint for this now. There’s a blueprint for how you can kind of stay silence and put it into your art. And that will make the bidding for your Netflix deal or your Hulu deal or your HBO max deal. Go through the roof.

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S1: I’m curious, Chris. I want to make sure that we address this for we close the larger conversation that the black community has been having about this slap. And it seems to if we go to extremes, it’s two camps, right? There’s the hate. This is toxic masculinity camp. Right. The idea that, you know, a black man, that the only way that you can resolve conflict, that if your ego is bruised, you know, that you have to sort of engage in physical violence in these sort of over-the-top ways to, you know, to defend yourself, to defend your manhood. And it’s been attacked. You’ve been besmirched. You have other groups of people, you know, including prominent people, Iyanla Vanzant coming out and saying, well, hey, this is protecting black women. It’s good to see a black man protect black women, etc., etc.. Where do you fall in that discussion as to whether this was an example of defending a black woman against an egregious attack or whether it was toxic masculinity and ego? Hmm.

S3: Well, I don’t think it was toxic masculinity. I don’t think Will Smith has a pattern of this behavior. You know, you look at Will Smith career, he’s been in front of our faces for 30 years now, doing what he does from, you know, the early rap albums to The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, to all the movies that were global successes, to, you know, whatever he’s doing now as a producer. He has not exhibited that kind of of of toxic masculinity as like an extreme sort of behavioral trait, a part of who he is. But I think that what Will Smith is doing is something that I’m doing right now, and I’ll make it personal again. I got a good therapist. Her name is Kailey. I think for Will Smith, he’s at a place at 53 years old, Jason, where he’s just now able to really process anger. And I believe he needs to work through it. We can go to therapy together if he wants to hit me up to work through how to really tap into anger, tap into putting a boundary up. I’m not okay with what you just said in a more healthy way, because the way he did it is the way that a 17 or 18 year old does it. I think the will has played nice for so long. He’s just the asses of all the powerful white executives that run every film company. So I feel like Will has played the game for so long. This is a chapter in his life where I believe he’s like, I am playing the game no more. What he did was wrong. Jason and I believe it will probably be the biggest learning moment of his career, and I’m really excited that we can sit back and learn with him.

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S1: You know, I like that because I must admit, you know, I’m I am team toxic masculinity. I think obviously we live in a patriarchy that tells men and boys that, Your Honor, your ego, your integrity is such a fragile thing. It’s constantly under assault that if somebody smudges your sneakers, you can punch them. If somebody looks at your partner the wrong way, you can pull a gun on them. And that concerns me because in connecting it to people who are saying this is the. Black women, the same toxic masculinity that says go smack a guy because he insulted you. It comes from the same place that says you can engage in that same level of violence if a woman disrespects you. And that’s what concerns me about it, that in public discourse, we have to recognize that that responding in this way had Will Smith. And I’m curious what your thoughts are about this. Had Will Smith gotten on the stage, grabbed the microphone out of Chris Rock’s hand and said, You know what? How dare you insult my wife? She’s suffering from alopecia. Maybe if you could get your marriage last as long as mine. Maybe if you were on stage like I am getting this award, you would know better. I feel like had he dressed him down on the red carpet or on the stage, had a Kanye moment and taken the microphone, that would have led to a different kind of discussion. Does that does that make sense?

S3: Oh, 100%. I mean, we’ve never seen Jason. There is no blueprint. There is no manuscript sitting around for us on how to cover this and to have it be at a ceremony where everyone’s dressed up in suits and bow ties and stilettos and million dollar gowns on their best behavior. We’ve never seen someone go to the extreme of putting hands on someone and not just like pushing them or shoving them, but slapping them in a way that could have knocked the man out. That kind of slap Dave was one of them. Ali I’ve been training for Ali and I know how to hit hard, kind of slaps. So there is no blueprint for this. We’ve never seen it before. And I think that to your point, if he had gotten up there and gotten the microphone and said something or even the press conferences now, and I think that will then in his composed sort of like calm way would have been able to say something that would have shaded Chris Rock. So yeah, I believe that if he would have handled it differently, if Will Smith had gone up there with some grace, if he would have pulled a conga even, we wouldn’t be having this conversation so many days later.

S1: Chris Witherspoon is an entertainment journalist and the founder and CEO of Pop Viewers. Thank you so much for joining us on a word.

S3: Thank you, Jason.

S1: And that’s a word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate.com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the executive producer of podcasts at Slate. June Thomas is senior managing producer of the Slate Podcast Network. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.