The on-stage Oscar altercation between actor Will Smith and comedian Chris Rock ought to raise more questions about toxic male behaviour than it should about anything else, says a Winnipeg Black community advocate.
During Sunday’s Academy Awards, Rock made a joke that suggested Jada Pinkett Smith — spouse to Will Smith — looked like a soldier because of her close-cropped haircut. Rock either did not know or did not care that her short hair was the result of alopecia, an autoimmune condition that causes hair loss.
Smith responded by walking on stage and slapping Rock across the face. Smith returned to his seat afterward and swore at Rock, then later apologized after picking up the award for best actor.
The widely publicized incident has led to a lot of conversations within Winnipeg’s Black community, said Tolu Ilelaboye, an advocate within the community.
She said the episode raises questions about the acceptable limits of insult comedy, celebrity privilege and the propensity of men to use violence.
She also said she fears the incident could renew racist tropes about Black male behaviour.
“When something happens in the Black community, it’s attributed to every member of the Black community,” she said, explaining what happened at the Oscars is about the bad behaviour of two men.
“If that was Danny DeVito and Brad Pitt, I don’t think that race would be an issue. It would just be two dudes. It would be about men.”
Ilelaboye said while it is not acceptable for Rock to ridicule a woman for her medical condition, it is also not acceptable for Smith to respond to the provocation with violence.
“To use his place in society and in this world to incite violence and to show that it’s OK to go and hit someone on stage and to use that position that you hold within society and make that commentary — whether it was intentional or not — was damaging,” she said.
“It’s hurtful to a lot of people who look up to him.”
Winnipeg comedian Emmanuel Lomuro said the incident should also make comics err on the side of caution if they’re ever tempted to “punch down” at people.
“Comedians often try to go with the racy jokes sometimes and it doesn’t always work,” he said. “Obviously, this time it had repercussions.”
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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