The Motion Picture Academy’s decision to ban Will Smith from Oscar ceremonies and events for 10 years as discipline for slapping Chris Rock is little more than an extended time out for a playground bully. It’s a toothless penalty that lays bare the shallowness of Hollywood morals.
At this point, the only person who can redeem the integrity of the Oscars is Smith himself. He needs to come to grips with the gravity of the offense he committed: slapping Rock, live on March 27 in front of millions on the Academy Awards stage. Smith needs to express-mail his golden trophy back to the Academy and publicly state something to the effect of: “Out of respect for the 94 years of honor conferred upon this award, I do not in good conscience feel worthy of being its custodian.”
Of the many unsettling things said in the aftermath of the slap, the most galling to me was his reference to the influence of a higher power during his surreal acceptance speech after he won for his work in “King Richard” less than an hour after his act of violence — and the Academy’s equally shocking decision not to eject Smith from the ceremony.
In his rambling remarks, Smith said, “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world,” he said.
This attempt to explain his actions added to the travesty of this ethical catastrophe. In couching his acceptance speech as somehow submitting to the will of God, Smith abdicated personal accountability.
Smith’s brutality stripped the entire evening of its prestige. That was proven when stunned Oscar attendees gave a standing ovation to someone who’d just committed an assault in front of their eyes.
With one deft blow, Will Smith created an existential crisis for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. The incident was such a jolt to societal norms that it will gnaw away at our national conscience until somehow properly atoned for. Smith, who resigned his AMPAS membership on April 1, was quick to accept his punishment when the 10-year ban was announced April 8. But there is more he should do.
Given the coarseness of pop culture in the age of social media, it was no surprise that much of this year’s Oscar proceedings were frequently profane. But it is an insult to the honor of God to assign him any part of the tawdry episode. To argue that some deterministic force was at play is to deny the sad fact that the affair was purely human. To be sure, a grave moral failure occurred, but the psychology and philosophy that underpins this ongoing spectacle can very ably be explained as an act of free will.
The stain on the Motion Picture Academy cannot be easily remediated. The only hope for a justifiable grace must involve Smith voluntarily returning his award for best actor.
Veteran actor Harry Lennix, a member of the Motion Picture Academy and Television Academy, has been a steady presence in film and TV since the late 1980s. Recent credits include such series as “Billions,” “Insecure,” “The Blacklist,” “24” and “Emily Owens, M.D.” as well as features “Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (2016), “Man of Steel” (2013), “Chi-Raq” (2015), “Ray” (2004), “The Matrix Reloaded,” “Titus” (1999) and “The Five Heartbeats” (1991). Lennix made his Broadway debut in 2007 in August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” and starred in Wilson’s “King Hedley II” at the Mark Taper Forum.