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A 94th Academy Awards that steadily maintained a buoyant spirit was rocked by an unbelievable exchange after Will Smith took offense to a joke made by Chris Rock about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith.
After Rock joked to Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to “G.I. Jane,” Smith stood up from his seat near the stage, strode up to Rock and slapped him. After sitting back down, Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your (expletive) mouth.” When Rock, who joked about Jada Pinkett Smith while hosting the Oscars in 2016, protested that it was just a “GI Jane” joke, Smith repeated the same line.
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said, before awkwardly returning to presenting best documentary, which went to Questlove’s “Summer of Soul (…or When the Revolution Was Not Televised).”
The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience and viewers at home. At the commercial break, presenter Daniel Kaluuya came up to hug Smith, and Denzel Washington escorted him to the side of the stage. The two talked and hugged and Tyler Perry came over to talk as well.
Smith, who plays Venus and Serena Williams’ father in “King Richard,” later in the show won best actor, his first Oscar. It meant Smith again took the stage shortly after what seemed likely to be one of the most infamous moments in Academy Awards history.
Smith’s acceptance speech vacillated between defense and apology.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” Smith said in his first remarks. He continued: “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.” Williams shared what Washington told him: “At your highest moment, be careful because that’s when the devil comes for you.” Ultimately, Smith apologized to the academy and to his fellow nominees.
“Art imitates life. I look like the crazy father” said Smith. “But love will make you do crazy things.” Up until that moment, the show had been running fairly smoothly. Ariana DeBose became the first Afro-Latina to win an Academy Award for supporting actress, while Troy Kotsur became the first deaf actor to win an acting award.