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Will Smith’s 10-Year Oscars Ban: ‘Toothless Penalty’ or ‘White Privilege on Parade’?

Everyone in Hollywood has an opinion over how the actor should be punished for the slap heard round the world. Here’s the correct one (you know, mine)

I feel a little awkward about what I’m about to do. It’s not something I’ve ever done before and, to be honest, it doesn’t come naturally. But what the heck, there’s a first time for everything, so here goes nothing.

I’m about to agree with the Academy.

Shocking, right? The run-up to this year’s Oscars was filled with more embarrassing missteps than a Rob Lowe-Snow White production number. The Academy infuriated rank-and-file members by pre-taping eight below-the-line awards to trim the ceremony (which still managed to run 20 minutes longer than last year). It snubbed Volodymyr Zelenskyy from an on-air appearance, despite Sean Penn’s threat to publicly smelt his Oscar if the Ukrainian president wasn’t allowed to speak (Zelenskyy ended up slumming it at the Grammys). Even the Academy’s brand-new $500 million movie museum — the one that co-host Wanda Sykes toured during a three-minute product-placement bit during the show — has been tangled in controversy, with complaints that its exhibits focus on every possible ethnic group but the one that actually built Hollywood (yep, they left out the Jews).

But on April 8, after deliberating on the fate of Will Smith for nearly two weeks, the Academy’s board of governors finally got something right. Its decision to ban Smith from Academy functions for 10 years — while allowing him to keep his newly-won Best Actor trophy and his eligibility for future awards — seems totally fair and proportional, especially considering that Smith had already apologized and resigned from the Academy in a savvy gesture of contrition. Anything less would have been a slap on the wrist. Anything more would have been overkill.

Of course, lots of folks disagree with that assessment, at least judging from all the outrage in the trade press and on Twitter these past couple of days. In one corner, there are those who believe Smith’s on-camera smacking of presenter Chris Rock warranted a lifetime ban. “If Will Smith or any other A-list actor had run onstage and simply pulled down his pants and defecated,” Harry Shearer speculated in The Hollywood Reporter, “I seriously doubt he’d/she’d be back on that stage in 10 years, or ever.” Others, like actor Harry Lennix — who wrote a guest column for Variety calling the 10-year ban “a toothless penalty that lays bare the shallowness of Hollywood morals” — have gone even further, suggesting the nuclear option; that Smith’s Oscar win should be reversed, or that he should voluntarily surrender his trophy, a punishment the Academy has never before meted out, not even to Harvey Weinstein. 

In the other corner, some are suggesting the punishment was too severe. A few are even arguing that Smith is the real victim here — of racism. Author and activist Frederik Joseph tweeted that “the ten-year ban they gave Will Smith feels very ‘make a lesson of this Black person’” while comedian Dean Obeidallah called the decision “White privilege on Parade.” Black Lives Matter co-founder Melina Abdullah went so far as to publish an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Sentinel titled “Why I Cheered When Will Smith Slapped Chris Rock” praising the actor for defending the honor of his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, after Rock cracked his joke about her alopecia-related shaved head. “I yearn for love and protection by our brothers,” she wrote, “especially when there are too many examples of betrayal… like that of Chris Rock that night.”

And then there are a few, like “Scandal” alum Joshua Malina, who fall somewhere in the cool-headed middle. “A harsher punishment,” he tweeted, “would have been mandatory attendance for 10 years.”

Chris Rock and Will Smith are seen onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 (Getty Images)
Chris Rock and Will Smith are seen onstage during the 94th Annual Academy Awards at Dolby Theatre on March 27, 2022 (Getty Images)

Obviously, there’s plenty of room for debate here. And there’s much to discuss about how the Academy handled not just the Will Smith incident — who’d he’d need to slap to get immediately escorted out of the Dolby, Liza Minelli?  — but in how the Oscars have dealt with other misdeeds in the past.

Should Kevin Spacey, still a card-carrying Academy member, have been booted from the organization after being accused of sexual abuse in 2017? Should Woody Allen have lost his credentials after Mia Farrow accused him of molesting her daughter in 1993? (Both have denied wrongdoing and were not convicted of any crime.) What about Mel Gibson? Do charges of anti-Semitism, homophobia, racism and domestic violence disqualify him from membership? (Gibson pleaded no contest to drunk driving in 2006 and to misdemeanor battery in 2010.)

And how about Adrien Brody planting that surprise smooch on Halle Berry at the 2003 Oscars? Should that act of what some online commentators have called sexual violence resulted in Oscar excommunication?

I don’t have the answer to any of those questions. And neither, apparently, does the Academy board of governors. But I do know that its decision to ban Smith from Oscar events for a decade feels sensible and reasonable, no matter how awkward — surreal, even — it is for me to praise a group that’s made so very many bad decisions in the past.

Fortunately, it’s not something I’ll likely have to do again any time soon.