It was the slap heard around the world.
While presenting the Best Documentary Feature award at the 2022 Oscars, Chris Rock mocked the shaved head of Will Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith — a hairstyle she sports due to alopecia, an autoimmune disorder that causes hair loss.
A furious Smith responded to Rock’s quip with physical force in front of 16.6 million viewers, shocking everyone — including Rock himself. “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me,” he said, stunned.
“The Slap” swiftly went viral, as both viewers and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences realized the moment wasn’t part of Rock’s schtick. Further complicating the situation, Smith won the Best Actor trophy later that night, for his performance in “King Richard.”
In April, Smith resigned from the Academy; the following week, after a formal disciplinary process, the Academy banned the actor from the Oscars and other events for 10 years. Some of Smith’s upcoming projects, including “Bad Boys 4” and the National Geographic nature show “Pole to Pole,” were reportedly put on hold.
Though Smith was allowed to keep his Oscar, his hard-won reputation as Hollywood’s golden boy was in tatters. Many in Hollywood wondered if he could recover from the biggest controversy of his career, or if “The Slap” was a career-ender.
The answer, several Hollywood crisis PR experts said, may not be entirely surprising.
“Hollywood always loves a comeback,” said Valerie Allen, CEO of Valerie Allen Public Relations.
Pundits say Smith waited too long to apologize — but he’s now back to winning awards
To some pundits, Smith’s initial reaction to the incident didn’t measure up. His Best Actor acceptance speech notably left out Rock. And later that night, at Vanity Fair’s annual Oscars party, a jubilant Smith was spotted clutching his trophy, dancing and singing along to his own songs.
Smith did publicly apologize to Rock in a statement released the day after the Oscars, as well as in a YouTube video he posted three months later.
“Chris, I apologize to you,” Smith said in the clip. “My behavior was unacceptable, and I’m here whenever you’re ready to talk.”
Both Allen and Evan Nierman, CEO of the crisis PR firm Red Banyan and co-author of the upcoming book “The Cancel Culture Curse: From Rage to Redemption in a World Gone Mad,” thinks Smith should have done the video apology much sooner.
“That slap was all that anyone in the world was talking about for days,” Nierman said. “That would have been the right time to release a video apology and to offer that apology to Chris Rock directly.”
Judging from reactions on social media, Smith may have permanently alienated some fans. But Hollywood crisis PR experts unanimously agree that in time, the actor will make a proper comeback.
“Will Smith has a big bucket of goodwill in Hollywood,” Allen said. “And I think his superpower is his humanity and his humor, and I think that’s all working for him.”
Smith is already starting to receive recognition again for his work. The Academy snubbed “Emancipation,” the Apple TV+ drama in which he plays an escaped slave, but last month, his performance earned the NAACP Image Award for outstanding actor in a motion picture. Last week, he and “Emancipation” director Antoine Fuqua also accepted the African-American Film Critics Association’s Beacon award on behalf of the film.
“Bad Boys 4” was officially announced as being back on track in January, with “Pole to Pole” following suit a few days later. Smith’s iMDB page currently has 13 upcoming projects listed, most of them in a producing capacity.
Nierman believes Hollywood has a vested interest in Smith reemerging from “permanent pariah-hood” — and not just because of his affable persona.
“He makes the studio and the directors way too much money to have him cast out,” Nierman said.
An expert says Chris Rock’s decision to discuss ‘The Slap’ in his Netflix special was ‘brilliant’
In the year since the Oscars, Rock has largely refrained from discussing “The Slap” onstage. That changed on Saturday, when he released his Netflix special “Selective Outrage,” which had been teased in advance as featuring his take on the incident.
“It still hurts. I got ‘Summertime’ ringing in my ears,” Rock joked in the special. “But I’m not a victim, baby. You’ll never see me on Oprah or Gayle crying … I took that hit like Pacquiao.”
Rock said Smith’s response had more to do with his wife than him, and also answered the question of why he didn’t hit back: “Because I got parents. You know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people.”
PR experts interviewed by Insider agree that Rock’s decision to address “The Slap” a year on was a smart move, drawing added attention to the special — Netflix’s first global live streaming event.
“The timing was brilliant, because he gave himself a chance to think how he wants to respond,” said Eileen Koch, CEO and founder of EKC PR. “It wasn’t on an emotional basis, like right after the fact, you know, and then because he wanted the best PR out of it. He waited ’til the Oscars. Then he gets the Netflix special, and he makes millions of dollars, and he becomes the hero.”
Experts say Smith has been smart to avoid commenting on Rock’s special
With both Rock’s comedy special and the one-year anniversary of “The Slap,” the spotlight is on Smith this week. He has yet to respond to Rock’s special, and experts say that’s the right move.
“After doing severe damage to his personal brand with the assault, Smith runs the risk of reigniting criticism, which could be seen as justifying his past actions for which he has now repeatedly apologized,” Nierman said.
Experts say that the best way Smith can move forward is by focusing on his work and handling his 10-year Academy ban with grace.
“Even though I’m sure there were things in the special he was upset about, if he handles it with dignity and class, maybe they could let him back in five years,” Koch said.
When the actor does eventually return to the Oscars, it likely won’t be with much fanfare. While Rock turned down an offer to host the ceremony this year, Smith has a long road to that kind of comeback.
“It’s hard to imagine that happening right now, but you know, people love a good redemption story,” said Nierman, who added that hosting duties would align with Smith’s “schtick.”
“I wouldn’t count Will Smith out, and I wouldn’t bet against Will Smith as one of the most bankable stars in Hollywood,” Nierman said. “He was always going to have a path to recover and redeem himself from this.”
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