Don’t Call Me Resilient

Will Smith's Oscar slap reveals fault lines as he defends Jada Pinkett Smith against Chris Rock

Episode Summary

In this special edition of 'Don't Call Me Resilient,' host Vinita Srivastava chats with Cheryl Thompson, Professor of Performance about how "the slap heard around the world" is part of a layered story of racism, sexism, power and performance.

Episode Notes

It felt like these Oscars were the first ones that weren’t actually so white. The whole event felt different. With attempts to display a more inclusive Hollywood, the showcase seemed to go beyond its usual tokenism.

But there was the Will Smith-Chris Rock fiasco taking attention away from all this. In what became one of the most infamous moments in the history of the Oscars, Smith got out of his seat to slap Rock for a bad joke aimed at Jada Pinkett Smith.

These flashpoints are always about other things – they are evidence of a layered story. In this case, it’s a story that’s divided people. Is it a story about toxic masculinity? It is a story of intergenerational trauma? Is it about a Black man standing up for Black women?

In this special episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient, we discuss this moment as a cultural flash point. We chat about how “the slap heard around the world” is evidence of a layered story of racism, sexism, power and performance. Will Smith’s violent behaviour towards Chris Rock raises questions about toxic masculinity and also reveals the fault lines of a man who is perhaps still wrestling with his traumatic past.

Even though we’re not ready to start rolling out our regular season which we plan to do in May, we couldn’t wait to talk about this cultural moment, so we produced this special episode.

Our guest is Cheryl Thompson, assistant professor in Performance at the School of Creative Industries, Ryerson University, where she looks at race and representation. Thompson is the author of Beauty in a Box about the politics of Black women and beauty, as well as Uncle: Race, Nostalgia and Loyalty. She’s also the Director of the Media Representation and Archives Lab at Ryerson.

Thompson was the guest of our very first episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient, where we had a fascinating conversation about the n-word. If you have not heard that one, please check it out.

Read Thompson's new article:
Jada Pinkett Smith and Black women’s hair: History of disrespect leads to the CROWN Act

Show notes for this episode & unedited transcript

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Episode Transcription

Will Smith's Oscar slap reveals fault lines as he defends Jada Pinkett against Chris Rock

*This is an unedited transcript

Vinita From The Conversation, this is Don't Call me Resilient, I'm Vinita Srivastava. 

Cheryl intro quote: the idea that a black comic would come in that stage use that pulpit to make fun of the least powerful people in the room. It kind of makes you pause and say comedy is really in a crisis because it's as if the comedian doesn't understand power anymore

So I was in my living room on Sunday night watching the Oscars. I assumed it was going to be the standard display of white Hollywood. But it felt different. And I was actually interested in watching. I felt this year's Oscars went beyond the usual tokenism. There was gospel music at the memorial, led by Jill Scott. Ahmir Questlove won an Oscar for his beautiful documentary Summer of Soul, and he gave a moving speech about it. Best Picture was directed by a woman Wanda Sykes, Regina Hall and Amy Schumer co-hosted and did a pretty good job, and masks were off. I mean, even the entire program. It opened up in this dreamy way, with Serena and Venus Williams introducing Queen Beyonce, who stepped out in glorious chartreuse with all of her performers. The whole of it just felt like a genuine celebration. And then there was the slap. Will Smith got out of her seat to confront Chris Rock for a bad joke he told about Jada Pinkett Smith. I was like, What is happening right now? It was completely shocking. But often these moments are about more than just the event. They are usually evidence of a layered story. Is it a story about toxic masculinity? Is it a story about intergenerational trauma? Is it about a Black man standing up for a Black woman? To discuss these issues, we're going to speak with today's guest, Cheryl Thompson. I'm Vinita Srivastava, and I'm your host for this special edition of Don't Call Me Resilient. Today's guest is Cheryl Thompson. She's assistant professor of Performance at Ryerson University, where she looks at race and representation. She's the author of Beauty in a Box about the Politics of Black Women and Beauty, as well as Uncle Race, Nostalgia and loyalty. She's the director of the Media Representation and Archives Lab.

Vinita Welcome, Cheryl. I know so many people who can't stop thinking about the Sunday night Oscars. What went through your mind when you first heard Chris Rock tell that joke? What did you see? What did you feel?

Cheryl Well, it was interesting because I cringed and then the camera panned to Jada Pinkett Smith, and she was like, I had the same look on my face. And then I saw her face, and I could imagine the millions of black women watching it who also felt the same way because we know the hair issues are real. So I just thought it was a tasteless joke. But a lot of people have been saying that obviously some time has passed, and I actually think it's more than just that. It would be like back in the day when you were the only woman in the room and a man would come in and make some sexist joke. And maybe it wasn't even directed at you. It was just said to the room. But you're the only woman in the room and you start to have a heightened sense of awareness of your your gender, of your difference in that moment. Chris Rock used his pulpit to do that to one of few black people in that elite space. He targeted them. And made it hyper awareness of not only their race, but also the fact that, let's face it, Jada Pinkett Smith doesn't have hair like all the other white women and other non-black women who were at the Oscars, right? It was just like a signalling out. It was almost like you could almost imagine if that was in a dream that suddenly the lights would go black and it would be a spotlight on either. Yeah, that's what it felt like to me

Vinita The thing is, you're talking about her, her feeling like, singled out or spotlighted out for her identity, which is a woman which is a black woman, but also her baldness, which is a result, a direct result of alopecia, which is an illness. It's not representative of her race or her gender necessarily, right?

Cheryl It's a medical condition that is in a high percentage of women of black women have that issue. That's right. It's like a much higher percentage than any other group. So I would almost wager that I bet Chris Rock knows a black woman with alopecia because it's it's a lot common in African-American communities. So for me, beyond that, if we just step back and put everything into perspective, who is Will Smith's peer group? Like, who are his contemporaries in that room? They said, Oh, you know, Denzel Washington came to him and Tyler Perry came to those are not his contemporaries. Those are other black men in Hollywood. Those are mentors for him.

Vinita Well, Denzel Washington is like an elder there for him, right?

Cheryl He's a mentor. Even Tyler Perry. He's not really an actor. He's more on the production side and a comedic kind of person. So if you put it into context, Will Smith, actually that slap slap me on to reality that Will Smith has no one. Will Smith is is a superstar of one. There is no other black male actor that Will Smith probably sits down and they talk about the industry because they've been there, done that. He has no one.


Vinita I mean, no doubt being at the Oscars is a Black man. Yes.


Cheryl But I'm really careful not to then turn him into a victim because obviously what he did was an aggressive act was an act of violence that everyone says, you know, the Oscars. We don't condone violence yet. You make a living out of producing it. So it's kind of it's kind of an irony that that they would make a statement like that


Vinita just before we get to the violence. Chris Rock produced his film Good Hair. Shouldn't he have known better?


Cheryl Well, from what I understand, he's come for Jada Pinkett Smith in public before, like he's made a joke about her in the past in a public forum that obviously fell flat, just like that one. So let's step back and say, what is the role of the comedian? Historically, comedians, you know, they punched up so they would make fun of the nobility class because it's fun to make fun of rich people. Right? Yeah, they would make fun of power, essentially. So the idea that a Black comic would come in that stage use that pulpit to make fun of the least powerful people in the room. It kind of makes you pause and say comedy is really in a crisis because it's as if the comedian doesn't understand power anymore. You know, they're they're attacking the people who are the most powerless in our society. And everybody's saying, Oh, it's jokes. It's a comedian. But that's actually not what the role of the comedian has historically been. The comedian has always punched up, not down. And I find in today's comedy world, a lot of comedians are punching down. And we're supposed to accept it as just a joke.


Vinita I feel like for years, comedians make fun of everybody. As you say, they're punching down. Why do you think we've allowed comedians to get away with this for so long?


Cheryl Because the reality is that power is that elusive thing in our contemporary culture where I just think everybody thinks that we're all equal now, or there's some level of equality now where it's like, it's, you know, it's Chris Rock. He's just making a joke. Will Smith is a star now with Will Smith is a Black man in America. Like, let's take the star


Vinita out the window. I mean, he is a star. You don't think you can do that.


Cheryl I don't. I actually don't think it matters that he is a quote unquote star because. He is not ever going to be given the kind of roles that his white contemporaries are given. Some would say, Look, Will Smith has been in major movies. But let's peel back the surface of those characters, and let's just say you don't really see a lot of narrative diversity in the Will Smith portfolio of films. I'm not defending Will Smith because I like him, like I'm actually never really been a fan of his. I always felt that he was performing a public self, being really smiley and always laughing, like he was just like the Black buddy on and off the screen.


Vinita He did say it in his acceptance speech. We need to perform a performance version of ourselves, right? We laugh at the joke and and actually he laughed at that joke, right? He sort of laughed at Chris Rock's joke before he turned right before he got up off the stage


Cheryl and said, Yeah, and you know, I think people are stuck on that because they say, Well, he did laugh. Yes. He obviously thought it was funny. He laughed, because that's the thing you do in that space. Yes, until somebody tells you, Hey, they crossed the line. And also, it's important to know that Will Smith is coming from a lineage of abuse. You know, he watched his mother being abused. So that's obviously a trigger, but it's only a trigger if you haven't healed that. Yeah, I think it's really important to understand that you can be really successful, talented at what you do and be completely broken inside.


Vinita Yeah. The thing that keeps going through my mind, I visualize that slap and I think, OK, it's very possible that that person has been slapped that way himself or witness that


Cheryl or seen it


Vinita or seen it. I mean, that doesn't come from nowhere.


Cheryl I was I was describing it to my my grad student. I grew up in a place called Scarborough. I've seen a few people get slapped in public the way he got up out of that seat and walked that stage. That was a walk of somebody who's like, I've I've seen it or I've done it before. He didn't just approach Chris Rock. He was strutting. It was. It was a serious strut. And you know, I've heard, I've read other articles, are talking about toxic masculinity and and it's this and this. The problem I'm having if he was a child and he witnessed abuse or he was or himself was beat, whatever it is in America, Black boys are actually never allowed to be children. They're not afforded a childhood. If we think about go back to Trayvon Martin, the minute that happened, they were calling him a man and he was a teenager. He was somebody's baby.


Vinita Well, let's talk about the violence. We have to talk about this whole toxic masculinity in his acceptance speech for Best Actor. I mean, he will Smith. Did you know he talked? He gave the whole masculine defence where he said, I'm defending my family. He talked about life replicating art. You know, I'm now the crazy dad. And so but all of that is very patriarchal, right? I'm the dad protecting my family or I'm the husband, protecting my wife. I mean, I find it interesting, Cheryl, that you're saying, you're you're defending him. We have to talk about this a little bit.


Cheryl It's not that I'm defending him. It's not. I understand him. And I think in this era, people can't understand that nuance. Like, I can agree that the behaviour is wrong. But I understand where the behaviour is coming from. It doesn't mean I condone it. Obviously, no, nobody should be in their Sunday best gets slapped in front of 15 million people.


Vinita That's humiliation.


Cheryl Humiliation. He handled it actually like a professional, like he. He kept it, handled


Vinita it with grace. He did.


Cheryl He handled it gracefully. It was obviously a difficult moment for him. But at the same time, somebody I heard somebody else say this. You know, when you get up into a certain age, you understand that violence actually could happen if you encroach on people's space in a certain way. If you're in certain spaces, right, you understand, you know, don't go into the setting and say certain things. There's like decorum about what you're going to say and not say because you don't want to anger anyone or you don't want to create an awkward moment. So my thing is, again, Chris Rock, you come out on stage and you look for the two black people at the front and they're your joke.


Vinita Yeah. So let's talk about those soft spots, right? Because Chris Rock is taking aim at the two Black folks and Will Smith is taking aim at the Black man on stage. So I kind of feel like, is it a case of going for who? You know, I'm going for the soft spots like in the room? I'm not sure if a white comedian would have made that joke.


Cheryl No. It would be comparable to a white comedian going to the Apollo and then making some joke about Black people that didn't land understand in the 21st century. A lot of white people actually understand the line of what they can't say as white people. I think that line is a little bit more clear. It doesn't mean that people don't cross it, but it's just more clear. I think we haven't yet in terms of the Black community, whether it's in America and North America, Canada, U.K., Europe, there isn't yet a discussion about maybe what we shouldn't be saying about each other in public. You know, like maybe what we need to do to protect ourselves because some of this is about protection. We need to start to protect people's psyche. And I think, will he kind of mentioned it in his speech about like, you know, if you're taking so many knocks? Yeah, it can actually do something to your the way you respond to things. It makes you more reactive, more hypersensitive that you're actually not able to just absorb an attack and not go into something like natural instinct to just protect yourself. To me, what I saw was it wasn't just protecting Jada. I felt like he was protecting himself.


Vinita Of course, yes. It's not like you've thought it through. Obviously not. It's an instinctive thing.


Cheryl Yeah, I was just like, something hit a nerve. And when I saw her face before it, the incident happened, I thought she was going to say something. I think it's very interesting that she didn't.


Vinita I so wish they had stood up. I'm so sad about the violence. I wish that they had done something different. And I'm sure Will Smith wishes he had done something different. Now he's apologised. And, you know, he says, I'm a work in progress. He apologised to the academy that night. He's done a more formal apology on Instagram and in the press.


Cheryl Yeah, I mean, apologies are fine, but he has to do some work. Obviously, there's something there. And the real irony about this Will Smith, you know, I used to follow him on Facebook. He always putting out all these like motivational videos. And, you know, he wrote a memoir. And this is why we really have to understand that everything in Hollywood at the end of the day is a product as much as we want to believe that things are always coming from a genuine place. It's a product and it's about the brand. And I'm not, you know, I'm not trying to throw shade at just will as being like, Oh, he's fake. No, everyone is. I think I think it's healthy for us as fans and the audience to understand that they call it an industry for a reason. Hollywood is in the business of making products out of people. And so for you to then expect that product to act in like, you know, kind of healthy ways, to me, I think it's the audience has to really adjust its expectations of these people now. That slap was also a slap on us.


Vinita Say more about that. What do you mean? It's a slap on us, like


Cheryl it's a slap on us because we've invested in these people's public personality as if it's who they are. We don't know Chris Rock. We don't know Will Smith. We don't know Jada. No, we really don't know what goes on behind closed doors, how they really think and feel. And we actually really don't know what motivates a person like Chris Rock to say the things that he says. Like, you don't know who's behind the app, the appearance of the celebrity person, the management team, the joke writer, like, you actually don't know who those people are. So if you have a healthy distance from them and see it as the production that it really is, then you can understand that you know, the pressures are more than just them as an individual. There's there's other pressures behind them. Even will issuing that statement. Somebody said that sounds like a publicist might have wrote That feels like maybe they did.


Vinita Maybe they did. I'm sure he went home. I mean, I don't know. There's pictures of him showing his celebration, and you know how that is. When you have a flare up of an anger and you let it go, you can let it go in some ways. But that's a publicly humiliating moment, not just for him, but for his family, for Chris Rock, for the Academy, for everybody. Venus and Serena Serena. I mean, oh my goodness, all the actors in that movie,


Cheryl Aunjanue Ellis, who was amazing.


Vinita And so here's this fight in public front of 15 million people. So this idea of breaking decorum, you know, airing the dirty laundry is a time to cross that barrier anyways.


Cheryl Well, I mean, like I said, you know, they were in their Sunday best. Yeah. But here's the thing, I think. That decorum for the non-white body really does mean acting white. It really, really does mean subscribing to white standards of being white mores white, you know, especially you go to those things, especially the fancy dinner, the fancy dinner. That's a European place setting. OK. You don't find that place setting in other parts of the world, so you're already having to subscribe to a certain way of being. That actually isn't innate to you. So decorum for me always means OK. Sure, I'll leave your blackness outside. You got to act right tonight. Air quotes. That's pretty much what it means. And I think we just don't pay enough attention to it now in the 21st century when there's so much diversity. It's not that I need to change. Maybe the rules of decorum need to change what we're actually considering to be appropriate behaviour. Maybe that needs to change now. Of course, it's never right to roll up on somebody and give them a slap like never. There is no world where anyone's going to say that that is appropriate. Yeah, but your words can also be violent. I'm sorry, but in my opinion, the last couple of years were given comedians a lot of rope to say things that are actually violent. They're just not funny. If it was funny, that's different.


Vinita I mean, it's so complicated, right? But he's also standing up, as you say, against a comedian who's making a tasteless, bad joke about a black woman. So, you know, I think you said something about, well, he's this is maybe the first time you've seen that ever.


Cheryl Yeah, usually. If you go back over Chris Rock's even stand up, Black women are the targets, too, like most of his jokes. If it's not about our hair, if it's not about our weight, if it's not about how we dress, how we act at the club, it's like we are often the literally the targets of the joke and we laugh because it's funny. But then over a lifetime, you start to think to yourself, then am I? Am I ugly like you? Literally in psyche? Am I am I? Because that's what I got from the joke that he was actually saying that Jada is ugly now. I don't believe that was just about to. It was a part to say that she's not a beautiful. She's not as feminine. That's what he's really getting in. And so for me, it's like. Nobody ever sticks up for Black women, usually. Usually we just get. I mean, I've seen white comedians even make jokes about black women. And everybody laughs and you're like, Wow, OK, that's interesting. So this was a moment where I was shocked. I was actually when when he made the joke, they plan to do Jada. She made her face. And unfortunately, this is the only take away that I think is negative to black men gave them a spectacle that completely overshadowed the other two Black women who were the for the first time hosting that show. Yeah, that's the real takeaway for me that I wish that never happened because it means now nobody's going to talk about Regina Hall, who's not even a comedian.


Vinita Oh, my goodness. Yeah.


Cheryl She did her best. I think she was actually really good. Yeah. No reason to talk about Wanda Sykes coming out being her true self as as a gay woman, not hiding anything. Nobody's going to talk about that. Nobody's even going to talk about Elliot Page making his first public appearance right in their true self. All that is out the window now because two Black men were behaving badly.


Vinita Yeah. And what about I mean, Questlove Ahmir Questlove Questlove?


Cheryl I mean,


Vinita Best Documentary was the first award after that. And I mean, that was the award that Chris Rock was presenting. I mean, attention must have been taken. I mean, Questlove was, of course, did a wonderful job when he got on stage, very emotional. And then, of course, the beautiful film that King Richard is.


Cheryl It is such an amazing. I mean, I saw it and I thought, Yes, Oscar right away. So I think if we just keep it real, that's what happens when you don't heal.


Vinita Cheryl, what do you think we can learn from this as a cultural moment?


Cheryl Even though Chris Rock said what he said and it was wrong, Will Smith obviously has some things he needs to heal. There's something going on in that human that is not right right now, even with all the success. Unprecedented win best actor at the Oscars. And I think if Chris Rock can also do some reflection and ask himself every time he gets up in the White Man's house, he wants to come for Black people. I think he really needs to question that and think, how am I at a point in my career where maybe my jokes need to change? Like to me, these moments are not moments of punishment or criticism. I actually see them as moments of change. Like that slap was to redirect you in a different direction.


Vinita Thanks, Sheryl. Very, very important. I mean, again, as Will Smith said in his apology, I am a work in progress. There were a lot of true lines in that, but that one really struck true for me.


Vinita Agreed. That's it for this special edition of Don't Call Me Resilient. Thank you so much for listening. I've been speaking with Professor Cheryl Thompson from the School of Performance at Ryerson University. I'd love to hear what you're thinking after that conversation. I'm on Twitter at right, Vinita. That's at W R I T E V I N I T A. Don't forget to tag our producers at conversation CA and use the hashtag #Don'tCallMeResilient. For additional research and resources. Go to to check out our show notes on this episode. If you like what you heard today, please help spread the love and tell a friend about us or leave us a review on whatever podcast app you use. And remember, we'll be back for season three really soon, so stay tuned. 

Don't Call Me Resilient as a production of The Conversation Canada, this podcast was produced with a grant for Journalism Innovation from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The series is produced and hosted by me, Vinita Srivastava, the producer on this episode is Nahid Buie. Reza Daya is our sound designer. Jennifer Moroz is our consulting producer. Our other producers are Hayley Lewis, Vaishnavi Dandekhar, Folarin Odunayo and Latifa Abdin. Lisa Varano is our audience development editor, and Anowa Quarcoo takes care of outreach. Scott White is the CEO of The Conversation Canada. And if you're wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the Pod? That's the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called Something in the Water.