Is selective outrage, really outrage?

By now everyone has seen THAT slap. If you don’t know what I mean, then where have you been? And can I come with you next time?

To recap, at this year’s 94th Academy Awards (also known as the Oscars), actor Will Smith slapped comedian Chris Rock after he made a joke about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith’s, appearance. For those who need further context, Pinkett Smith suffers from alopecia and to tackle her illness, she has decided to have a bald hairstyle instead of wearing wigs or scarves.

The joke itself wasn’t funny, and Pinkett Smith’s reaction clearly showed a woman who was hurt from being roasted by Rock. A quick note – I completely understand Pinkett Smith’s pain and embarrassment. Women are often judged on their beauty by their hair and for Black women, that judgement can be harsher as our natural hair doesn’t grow or look like European hair. So, when a Black woman decides to wear her hair short or bald, instead of the world seeing another hairstyle, it is not unfamiliar that her femininity is questioned or denied. Anyway, this blog isn’t about that. I want to focus on the fallout of Will Smith’s action.

Let me start by saying that Smith should not have slapped Rock. I appreciate Smith’s need to protect his wife, but raising a hand to anyone isn’t the answer and takes away from the original offense. It is right that Smith should be held accountable, however wider society and the Academy’s reactions have left me questioning whether the punishment actually outweighs Smith’s crime.

Days after the incident, Smith resigned from the Academy. Shortly afterwards, the Academy banned Smith for attending any of its events or programmes, in person or virtually for ten years. A ban is certainly reasonable, but ten years? Isn’t the Academy the same institution that took years, if not decades to expel other ‘Hollywood elites’ for their awful behaviour?

In 1977, director Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to unlawful sex with a minor. He fled the USA to avoid prison and started a new life in Europe. In 2002, Polanski won an Academy Award for best director for his film ‘The Pianist’. Despite Polanski failing to fulfil his conviction and choosing to live his life as a fugitive, the Academy still chose to reward him. In fact, it took the Academy a further 16 years before they decided to expel Polanski. That’s 45 years (in total) since his own admission of having sex with a 13-year-old girl. Interestingly, it only took weeks for Smith to be expelled.

I am also intrigued that Polanski received a standing ovation at the 2002 ceremony for winning his award. I’m sure that some of his peers were bewildered or even disgusted that not only was Polanski allowed to avoid jail, but was still working and receiving accolades. Yet, their protests were drowned out by an army of celebrities who (literally) applauded his success. Seven years later, over 100 actors, directors and other famous people signed a letter petitioning for Polanski’s release after he was arrested at Zurich airport in a failed extradition attempt.

You’ve read that right; people were protesting to release a man who had yet to serve even a minute in prison after being convicted of a crime.

Of course, one could argue that this took place pre-Me Too era, but that doesn’t diminish Polanski’s actions or that he continues to deny his victim justice.

In comparison, Smith’s reputation has taken a kicking and I mean a real ‘kicking’ with one critic branding his act “the most shameful and unforgivable Oscar moment ever.” Really? So, Hattie McDaniel being denied access to the ceremony to accept her award for best supporting actress for ‘Gone with the Wind’ because she was Black was more acceptable? Or that it took the Academy a further 62 years to award a second African-American actress. This isn’t more shameful?

Or how about actor John Wayne needing to be restrained by security guards after wanting to physically remove Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather from the stage after she accepted the best actor award on Marlon Brando’s behalf. Littlefeather had every right to address an industry that negatively portrays her community and heritage with disdain that has lasting impact to this present day. In 2016, Leonardo DiCaprio spoke out about recognising native history and to protect indigenous lands when accepting his award at the Golden Globe Awards. That’s 43 years after Littlefeather’s initial plea. Am I the only one to see an emerging pattern of delayed behaviour here?

Yet, the pearl clutching response from White people has been both performative and ridiculous, and it’s telling that our so-called journey to equality is still in the early stages. Hollywood director Judd Apatow declared, in a now deleted tweet, that Smith “could have killed” Rock. He then later admitted that he had not watched the Oscars in order to make such a judgement. Howard Stern compared Smith to Donald Trump, stating that both “were the same guy”.

The many hysterical White women who projected their own experiences onto one situation not only made things worse, but also showed the Black community that it does not take much for wider society to revert back to believing the stereotypes that have been tirelessly fought against. Screenwriter Krista Vernoff and journalist E. Jean Carroll compared the slap to the same as child or domestic abuse, and that they were triggered to witness it.

Such statements are not only severe but questionable. To my knowledge, Smith has never been accused of abusing any of his wives (former and present) or children, yet this swift assertion to compare his action to such feels like he was never too far away from being seen as the violent Black man. Instead of seeing his action as being out of character and witnessing the emotions that drove Smith to cry afterwards, some chose to impose a narrative that could not be further from the truth. After all, Smith is not Suge Knight.

Smith has spent the best part of 30 years entertaining and delighting film audiences around the world. Up until late, he has been one the few celebrities who does not regularly feature in gossip columns or blogs. After 24 years of marriage to Pinkett Smith – who were once seen as ‘couple goals’ worldwide – one mistake seems to have eradicated three decades of good behaviour. Whilst the world played its part to overlook Harvey Weinstein’s sexual predator behaviour and accept Prince Andrew’s bizarre friendship with a convicted paedophile, neither seemed to have faced the backlash that Smith is witnessing at the height of their actions.

Court documents filed in New York allege sexual assault offences that Weinstein is accused of as far back as the 1980s, yet it was only in 2017 that the Academy expelled him and eventually Weinstein was convicted of his crimes in 2020. It also took years before Prince Andrew shot himself in the foot with his now infamous interview with journalist Emily Maitlis before anyone took real action and dug deeper than superficial headlines to ask what the hell was really going on.

It certainly feels like the grace period for the two mentioned White men appears to be far longer than the hours it took for mainstream society to demonise Smith, regardless of his historical good reputation.

Members of the Black community can also be accused of clutching their pearls. It did not take long for certain Black celebrities to join in with questions on how Smith’s action will affect the Black community overall. I have an answer; it won’t. If one man doing something wrong condemns an entire community then we have deeper issues to tackle, and that should be the topic of conversation.

From David Oyelowo to Bernadine Evaristo, these questions of concern are ridiculous. How many White men reflect and question how the actions of Weinstein and Prince Andrew impacts them and the White community? I might be out on a limb here, but I’m pretty sure very few if any do. Such comments give the impression that White people’s opinions about a subject matter are superior to others, when in fact we know how much selective outrage is at play.

All I want is for people to bring the same energy to every celebrity acting outrageously. Whether it’s Smith slapping Rock, Jeremy Clarkson physically and verbally assaulting his assistant, or the likes of Weinstein misusing his position of power to lure and attack women, all deserve condemnation instead of getting years of grace, second chances and an array of excuses of “boys will be boys” to overlook their behaviours.

As for Smith, following his official public apology to Rock, I hope both men can one day resolve their differences. I also hope once the hysteria dies down, Smith will be properly judged on making one mistake and that his career will not be written off. Or at least given a second chance (or a third, fourth, fifth), as his White counterparts have received over many years. 

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