Whether we regard Chris Rock as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment…or violence. Writes Deborah Corso
On Sunday March 27, 2022, the 94th Academy Awards ceremony was well underway when the host, comedian Chris Rock, was assaulted by actor Will Smith. Rock had made a few playful jokes while presenting the award for best documentary feature film. Denzel Washington, Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz were roasted without incident. But then Rock joked: “Jada, I love ya. G.I. Jane 2, can’t wait to see it.” He was referencing Will Smith’s wife’s shaved head, and a film for which Demi Moore shaved her head: G.I. Jane. It was then that Will Smith strode to the stage and struck Rock. When he returned to his seat, he shouted: “Keep my wife’s name out ya f*ing mouth” Rock maintained his composure, then addressed the audience: “Oh wow. Will Smith just smacked the st out of me.” Then he addressed Smith directly: “Wow, dude, it’s a G.I. Jane joke.” Smith again shouted: “Keep my wife’s name out ya f***ing mouth.”
In the wake of that incident, a tidal wave of apologists rose to rationalize assaulting a comedian. Female comic Tiffany Haddish called the Smithslap “the most beautiful thing I’ve seen.” Singer Liam Payne chimed in: “I believe whatever he felt that he did, he had the right to do.” Guardian columnist Taya Bero wrote: “It’s clear that the backlash against Smith is rooted in not just anti-Blackness, but respectability politics as well.” Forbes Magazine’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion editor, Maia Hoskin, wrote in a column that the backlash against Smith “is about a much larger systemic issue rooted in white supremacist culture,” which she said has been “designed to police the behavior of Blacks amongst the who’s who in Hollywood and beyond.“ She continued: “Respectability politics suggest that equity and fair treatment require that Black people — both inside and outside of Hollywood — conduct themselves in a manner deemed acceptable to whites.” Fresh Prince of Bel-Air co-star Janet Hubert piled on: “There is only so much one can take… sometimes you have to slap back.”
Apologists were countered by several high-profile black celebs, including Wanda Sykes and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who condemned Smith’s behavior. Were they speaking from anti-blackness? Or were they speaking from conviction with respect to non-violence? Were those who refused to rationalize or excuse the slap modeling respectability politics? Or were they championing a most liberal value: the right to exercise the freedom of speech? Kareem Abdul-Jabbar took to Substack and penned an essay. “With a single petulant blow, he advocated violence, diminished women, insulted the entertainment industry, and perpetuated the stereotypes about the Black community.” If only Kareem were half as forthcoming regarding the diminishing of women and advocation of violence in Islamic scripture and jurisprudence.
Shameless star Shanola Hampton tweeted: “There is NEVER a justification for VIOLENCE! Never, ever, ever!”
Wanda Sykes appeared on Ellen DeGeneres’ show and stated: “It was sickening. It was absolutely — I physically felt ill, and I’m still a little traumatized by it,” Sykes said. “And for them to let [Smith] stay in that room and enjoy the rest of the show and accept his award, I was like, ‘How gross is this?’ This sends the wrong message. If you assault somebody, you get escorted out the building and that’s it. But for them to let him continue, I thought it was gross.”
Chris Rock literally took a hit for free speech. And he took it like a gentleman — with composure, dignity, and grace. In the 1960s, another comedian took several hits for the freedom of expression. His name was Lenny Bruce.
After years of rising in popularity on the nightclub circuit, Bruce also received increasing criticism. There were people who thought Lenny Bruce should be slapped into silence as well. There were people who thought they had the right to curb his speech, because they found it offensive. And so they did. Bruce was subjected to a string of arrests: In 1961, he was arrested in San Francisco. In 1962, he was arrested twice in Los Angeles and once in Chicago for violating California and Illinois obscenity laws (he beat the LA charges but was convicted in Chicago). In 1964, California authorities arrested him for a third time.
Bruce left LA and moved to New York, where his First Amendment rights would be violated even more thoroughly. On the nights of March 31 and April 1, 1964, the New York City District Attorney’s Office sent undercover investigators to two of Bruce’s Café Au Go-Go performances. During those performances, Lenny Bruce roasted many things, including the appearance of Eleanor Roosevelt. The NY District Attorney convened a grand jury and indicted Bruce for violating New York penal code 1140, a law criminalizing offensive speech.
Bruce was found guilty and sentenced to “four months in the workhouse.” In its final opinion, the court concluded that Bruce’s act “appealed to prurient interest,” was “patently offensive to the average person in the community,” and lacked “redeeming social importance.”
Those who rationalized and attempted to justify Will Smith’s conduct at the Oscars are cut from the same ideological cloth as those who engaged in the ruthless persecution and prosecution of Lenny Bruce. During the Lenny Bruce trial in New York, a group of artists, actors, comedians and authors including Elizabeth Taylor, Paul Newman, Allen Ginsberg, Norman Mailer, Bob Dylan, and many others penned a petition. It read:
Whether we regard Bruce as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment.”
And let us join them and say:
Whether we regard Chris Rock as a moral spokesman or simply as an entertainer, we believe he should be allowed to perform free from censorship or harassment…or violence.