By Vernon A. Williams
This is not a joyful task… however necessary; though it could have, and should have been, the portrayal of a seminal moment in the world of entertainment.
I cannot remember a column I felt so compelled to write with as little sense of joy.
When the subject has been a tragedy, at least there was a sense of condolences. When the subject delved into injustices, there was at least a mood of resolve. Even in the loss of loved ones, there were warm reminiscences and the knowledge of salvation.
While actor Will Smith “pimp slapping” comedian Chris Rock was not a tragedy, societal injustice, loss of life, it was nonetheless an incident that shocked tens of millions of live television viewers around the world, leaving an odious stain on the production of the first Academy Awards directed by a Black American.
The focal point of the morning after the 94th Annual Academy Awards should have been the amazing job done by Will Packer who previously produced soulful films like “Straight Outta Compton” and “Stomp the Yard.” The night should have the validation of his 2016 claim that the Academy Awards denied access to too many talented Blacks.
Packer’s accomplishment could have been a tribute to public education as he is a proud product of St. Petersburg’s public school system, where the city’s mayor on the day of the most famous heralded evening of Hollywood awards hosted a watch party in the prestigious Woodson African American Museum of Florida in his honor.
Oscar night should have been yet another of a long list of affirmations of the critical contributions, talent, intellect, and character of the endless list of highly successful graduates of our nation’s Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) as he is a distinguished alum of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU).
What a source of pride Will Packer must have been Sunday night for current and past students of the public historically Black land grant Florida A & M University in Tallahassee, the third-largest predominantly Black institution of higher learning in the United States by enrollment and the only HBCU in the state of Florida.
It was not just that it should have been a shining moment for Packer. Part of the shame of the Will Smith debacle was the detraction from talent the producer placed in the spotlight; opening the ceremony with elegant tennis legends Venus and Serena introducing musical royalty Beyonce who wowed a worldwide audience with a mesmerizing opening number.
Packer engaged Black actresses Regina Hall and Wanda Sykes as two of the three co-hosts, another rare look for the Oscars. The band looked and sounded like the iconic Motown musicians. It was an all-star collection of recording artists that included drummer Travis Barker, prolific pianist Robert Glasper and the legendary Sheila E. He even included DJ D-Nice of Club Quarantine fame!
Also lost in the Smith-Rock incident was the Oscar for Best Original Documentary going to an emotional Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson for his directorial debut, “Summer of Soul” (… or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) – the depiction of a musical mega-festival in 1969 considered the “Woodstock of Harlem.” Thompson is bandleader with the Hall of Fame Roots on “The Tonight Show” hosted by Jimmy Fallon.
We should have been talking about all of these key moments of Blacks who are so frequently ignored by the Academy Awards ceremonies, but instead all of the attention was focused on the beef between a pair of spoiled, overpaid celebrities whose confrontation marred an otherwise glorious moment.
In an op-ed piece for USA Today, Dr. Jerome Adams summed, “Assault, homicide and violent crime rates are rising… and Black men already shoulder a disproportionate burden of these statistics. The last thing we need is for two of the most successful and recognizable Black men in the country to seemingly give the thumbs up to violence.”
Make no mistake. Reactions were mixed. Many insisted that Chris Rock just went too far and that Will Smith slapping him was an act of a brother demonstrating unrestrained love for his woman being the butt of an insensitive joke. Still, others were almost in disbelief that Rock allowed the blow without retaliation, which could have triggered a nasty brawl.
This is just one more repulsive example of how Black on Black violence among men is woven into the fabric of the nation’s acceptance and expectation. Imagine the worldwide rage if either the attacker or victim had been White… or God forbid, female.
Will Smith was childish, immature, and just plain wrong. His next day feigned Instagram apology was lame. The feckless inaction of Academy organizers was disappointing. And those who justify any kind of violence for any reason other than self-defense or the defense of others are both hypocritical and dangerous.
National Public Radio TV Critic Eric Deggans (another great G.I. success story and son of legendary Gary journalist Chuck Deggans) told MSNBC: “This was completely avoidable and something that he brought on himself. Even when he apologized (that night), he didn’t apologize to the man that he struck.
“I was astonished that Will Smith, who built his YouTube channel telling others how to live their best life would stoop to something so low and then not have the courage to admit that he did something wrong. I was surprised that the Academy even allowed him on stage to give a speech in light of all of it.”
Well said, brother. It was a sad affair all the way around. Imagine what a classic higher road moment it would have been had Smith simply approached Rock respectfully, put an arm around his brother, explained that his wife was wounded by the remarks and that an apology was in order. Rock likely would have obliged. The children would have learned from it, and Black love would have shone through around the world.
It was an opportunity lost.