What It Felt Like in the Room When Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock at the Oscars

Way up in Mezzanine 3, Row F of the Dolby Theatre, I got the sneaking sense that something was not going as planned. It was hours into the ninety-fourth annual Academy Awards, and Will Smith had just walked onstage and slapped Chris Rock. From the nosebleed section, it looked like two small, famous blobs doing a comic bit. (I am nearsighted.) “Wow,” Rock said, “Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me.” I wondered, Can people say “shit” on network TV? But it was the word “fucking” that clued me in. Then I heard it again. “Keep my wife’s name out your fucking mouth.” Smith was unmiked and palpably angry.

“What just happened?” the woman next to me asked. She was Emily Uribe, a bubbly twenty-two-year-old influencer who had covered the red carpet for TikTok. Like everyone at the Dolby, she was having trouble reading the moment. The people in front of me murmured and shifted in their seats. After Rock presented the Best Documentary award to Questlove and left the stage, Sean (P. Diddy) Combs came out to keep the show moving. “I’m still in shock,” Uribe said, checking her phone. “They literally muted it on TV.”

At the commercial break, I sprinted down to the ground-floor lobby. “It looked like it was a joke at first,” a guy in a tuxedo told me. “Maybe it was a warning shot? I dunno.” A Danish film producer was still piecing things together. “It felt staged,” she said. She turned to her companion, a guy who works for the Danish Ministry of Culture. “Did you see it?” A man who worked a tech job at the ceremony came by. “Everything I know from backstage was that that was totally real,” he clarified. “It was certainly not in our script.” A friend who was in the orchestra section texted me, “Will Smith just assaulted Chris Rock onstage. That was real / it was insane. Denzel got between them. It’s pretty calm in here now.”

What happened, the attendees (and the world) soon pieced together, was this: Rock made a joke comparing Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, to Demi Moore’s character in “G.I. Jane,” because both had a shaved head. Pinkett Smith’s is a result of her alopecia. Then Smith walked up to him and smacked him. On social media, viewers were studying footage and taking sides, deconstructing the moment in terms of race, class, and trauma. But at the Dolby the mood was mostly bewilderment, like being at a bar where a fight between strangers has broken out. It felt chaotic, unpredictable, shocking, alarming. And that was before the realization that Smith was, in all likelihood, about to win Best Actor and give a speech.

When Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, and Uma Thurman presented the Best Actor award, a crowd that included Rami Malek gathered around the circular bar outside the orchestra section. Typically, attendees who escape to the lobby bars schmooze over wine and popcorn, paying little attention to the show. But, as the Best Actor nominees were read out, a man yelled, “Shh! We all want to hear what he got to say. Shut up!” He turned out to be Robert Glasper, a pianist who had just played in the onstage band. Everyone fell silent as Smith’s face filled the bar monitor. In his speech, which had the raw, confused emotion of a man navigating euphoria, rage, shame, pride, and “Shit, what did I just do,” Smith returned over and over to the word “protect,” the concept that united the character he had won the Oscar for playing—Richard Williams, the father of Venus and Serena, in “King Richard”—and the astonishing action he had just taken on live TV. Tears came to his eyes as he said, “Love will make you do crazy things.” But was that any justification for violence?

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Afterward, the crowd dispersed, and Glasper ran over to hug his high-school classmate Beyoncé, who materialized in otherworldly proximity. When he returned, Glasper told me, “I hung out with Chris Rock last week. I was playing at the Blue Note Jazz Club in New York, and Chris comes out all the time for my shows. He told me then, ‘I can’t wait to hopefully give Questlove the award. It’s gonna be so dope if he wins!’ ” On the monitor, Jessica Chastain was winning Best Actress, but the rest of the ceremony might as well have been a clog-dancing festival. All anyone could focus on was Smith. “He was just overwhelmed,” Glasper said. “I think it’s going to be the most talked about thing for a while.”

In the endless run-up to this year’s Oscars, most of the chatter was about the eight categories that had been shunted to the pre-show before the live broadcast. The Academy had rebranded it the Golden Hour, after the late-afternoon span that gives filmmakers the honeyed light of the setting sun. But the nominees in the demoted categories weren’t buying it. I had started my night with one of them, Rena DeAngelo, the set decorator for “West Side Story.”

“Stop it! You’re not fooling us by calling it the Golden Hour,” DeAngelo said in a black car, as we inched toward the Dolby around one in the afternoon. She had found out that her category was being demoted weeks before, during a Zoom meeting with an Academy official. “We all assumed it was just a COVID-logistics Zoom,” she said. “And then when he started talking about how they were going to pre-tape eight categories, everybody was just staring at this guy in stunned silence, going, ‘What are you talking about?’ He said, ‘We didn’t want you to hear about it in the press.’ ” She went on, “We felt slighted. It just felt bad.” Anyway, she explained in the car, she expected to lose to “Dune.” (She did.)

On the red carpet, I met a young woman who was scanning the V.I.P. side for her dad, Jay Rosenblatt, a nominee for his documentary short “When We Were Bullies,” about a fifth-grade bullying incident. After his family called him over, I asked Rosenblatt how Oscar-season bullying compared with the grade-school kind. “We’re better dressed,” he said, chuckling. By the end of the night, there was more to this comparison than we’d realized. Ascending the stairs to the Dolby Theatre, I passed the seventy-four-year-old Korean actress Yuh-jung Youn, the unflappable winner of last year’s Best Supporting Actress prize, for “Minari.” Was there anyone she wanted to meet this year? “I’m not that excited, because my age is not an exciting age,” she told me, and made her way inside.

The Golden Hour passed without incident. Rumors of a secret plan for the winners to hold their statuettes upside down, in protest of the Academy’s decision, were a bust. The speeches were shown in edited form during the broadcast. In the end, the ceremony was longer than last year’s, making the Academy’s category cutting seem even more like a self-inflicted headache. Then the show proper started, with the Williams sisters introducing Beyoncé, who sang the nominated song from “King Richard” in tennis-ball-yellow regalia.

As the number was winding down, a young woman in a ruffled red dress rushed in and sat to my left. This was Uribe, the TikTok correspondent. “Sorry, I’m such a visceral reactor!” she said, as she panted post-Beyoncé. She told me excitedly that she had met Timothée Chalamet on the red carpet and told him that he had something in his teeth. As the show went on, she gasped and cheered and held her hands to her heart at every turn. I wanted to feel all the feelings she was having. When Youn presented Best Supporting Actor to Troy Kotsur, the deaf star of “CODA,” Uribe squealed, “Oh, I’m so happy for him!” So was everyone. His speech, delivered in sign language, was a heart-melter. At the end, everyone stood and gave him a standing wave. I thought, That’s it. The emotional high point of the evening.

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