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Slapping incident at the Oscars sparks difficult but important conversations


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Four days after the shocking events at this year's Oscars, the fallout is not over.

The Academy of Motion Pictures says that it is considering disciplinary action against Will Smith for walking on stage and striking comedian Chris Rock. The Academy also said yesterday that Smith was asked to leave the ceremony, but refused to go.

Chris Rock, for his part, said during a previously scheduled show last night that he is still processing what happened.

Many people and commentators are also still processing it.

Stephanie Sy picks up on that larger conversation.

Stephanie Sy: A lot of people who watched Will Smith's on-stage slap of comedian Chris Rock are saying the moment carried more meaning and charge than just a man losing his cool with another man who insulted his wife.

Joining me to discuss the deeper cultural context are author and film critic Eisa Nefertari Ulen, who is also a professor, and Mark Anthony Neal, author and professor of Black popular culture at Duke University.

Professors, thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour."

And, Professor Ulen, I want to jump right in with you.

You wrote a searing piece for The Hollywood Reporter, in which you seemed to dissect each action Will Smith took that night in a deeper context of pain, specifically what you called Black pain.

Why do you think it's important to see this moment through that lens?

Eisa Nefertari Ulen, Hunter College: I think that any time we witness violence, we need to understand that from a place where we recognize the emotional and psychological state that's driving this physical response to a trigger.

And Will Smith was definitely triggered that night. But I think, in the broader context of American society, we need to understand what was happening there, it's really rooted and steeped in a 400-year commitment to Black erasure, Black marginalization, Black silencing, and the stereotyping of Black people.

All of that was present in a visceral, felt and real way in the infamous slap.

Stephanie Sy: Professor Neal, you have taken a different take in previous interviews.

You have criticized Will Smith's actions as rooted in notions of traditional manhood, what some people refer to as toxic masculinity. Why do you view it that way?

Mark Anthony Neal, Duke University: There's been a lot of discourse recently about the ways in which Black men can show up for Black women. We saw Senator Cory Booker do a version of that last week with Judge Brown Jackson.

But I think, in this instance, the expectation that Black men show up is not something in which we resort to violence. I think, like Eisa suggested we saw a man who was unhinged in that moment, and the only thing that seemed to be in his toolbox to respond to that moment was an act of violence.

But I also don't want to erase the violence that was enacted by Chris Rock in that moment. In his critique or joke on Jada Pinkett Smith, an extension of a broader critique of Black women, is it ever a comfortable space to make fun of the kind of chronic diseases that Black women are suffering, right?

So, in that regard, I absolutely agree with Eisa that we're seeing the continuation of almost a spectacle of Black pain broadcast to millions and millions of people.

Stephanie Sy: Professor Ulen, I wonder if you will pick up on that point and talk about Black pain as it relates to Jada Pinkett Smith in this moment and to Black women.

Was Chris Rock's joke about her shaved head, did it go beyond an insensitivity to her medical condition, alopecia, but did it also hit at issues surrounding Black beauty?

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: Yes.

And I appreciate mark so much for guiding the conversation in this direction. The decentering of Black women through time has been ubiquitous. We have been maligned and attacked so much that we have internalized these external pressures, these social constructs, and have started to even use them, one against each other, in the Black community.

You know, calling someone bald-headed in the Black community, critiquing Black women's hair, that is a real red zone. And the language itself is a violent act. Chris Rock should not be exonerated. What he committed on stage was a verbal assault.

To minimize it and say it was just a joke is actually treading into dangerous territory, because it gives a kind of cultural permission to that global audience, to people outside the African American community to commit the same kind of aggressions against Black women. Calling them out about their physical appearance, marginalizing the way that they appear, this has been a tool used to oppress Black people through time.

And so no one should have permission to do that. It is more than just a joke. So, as violent as Will Smith's act was, his slap, and the fact that he should not be exonerated for what she did that night, we need to hold Chris Rock accountable also and anybody else that would try to attack Black woman's appearance.

Stephanie Sy: Professor Neal, you obviously agree that Chris Rock, a comedian, did cross the line in this instance.

But I also wonder if you will comment on the irony here. Two of the most high-profile Black men at the Oscars that night, Will Smith and Chris Rock, get into this altercation, after the Oscars have faced years of criticism.

Oscars so white was the hashtag not so long ago, the irony of that and whether you're concerned something was lost that evening, in the midst of so many victories for Black talent that evening, including Mr. Smith's.

Mark Anthony Neal: When you think about some of the campaigns around Oscars so white, it is ironic that this moment brings upon at least a feeling of shame or some evidence of shame.

And I think that shame is legitimate, in terms of the way that some Black folks, Black Hollywood folks, but also nominal Black folks who were watching the television show.

My concern there is that we can't put too much energy into this notion that we can somehow not have shame on performance, right? You know, we're talking about a multimedia culture now, social media. There's so many aspects of what we would call the dirty laundry of Blackness that are out there.

I think what's more important in this moment is for us to own up to the pain that's occurring in this context, to kind of go from that standpoint to talk about ways in which we can be much more healthier.

And, of course, part of the challenge here is that, if there were more vibrant and diverse representations of Blackness that existed in Hollywood and that were given the kind of kudos that we saw the other night, then we wouldn't feel so unhinged when we have this kind of moment explode, right, because it's not exact -- it's not as if we haven't seen these examples of Hollywood performances before, where folks do things in kind of off-script.

That kind of break decorum, right? Let's not pretend that this is the first time decorum has been broken at the Hollywood -- at the Academy Awards.

Stephanie Sy: Well, to that point, the Academy is considering disciplinary action today against Will Smith.

What do you think of that? And within Black spaces, what are some of the ways accountability is being discussed, Professor Ulen?

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: I would like to see the Board of Governors, the Academy Board of Governors take this as an opportunity.

And instead of resorting to punitive disciplinary actions to hold Will Smith accountable, I think that this is an opportunity for the Academy to do something bold and different. An our healing needs to happen in a way that is restorative around the issues of Black care, around the issues of Black wellness, around the fact that we are, as Mark Anthony Neal just said, unhinged, and not just because of what happened that night and the representations and misrepresentations of Black people through Hollywood through time.

Let the Academy do something that affirms Black life and the value and worth of Jada Pinkett Smith first, and then Chris Rock and Will Smith also.

Stephanie Sy: Mark Anthony Neal, what do you think should be looked at in terms of accountability for either of these men or for the Academy?

Mark Anthony Neal: I think you only ask and you to deal with the acts, as it were, in a way that reflects the nature of the act.

We didn't have these conversations when Adrien Brody a few years ago sexually assaulted an actress on stage. We didn't have these conversations, of course, when you had someone like Casey Affleck, who was facing a rape charge at the time that he won his award.

Why is it now that we feel the need to do a better job of scripting these shows and policing people when it's an act of Black-on-Black crime that occurred on that stage?

Stephanie Sy: Eisa Ulen and Mark Anthony Neal, I'm afraid we're out of time and we will have to leave it there.

But thank you so much for joining the "NewsHour" with your insights.

Eisa Nefertari Ulen: Thank you.

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