Chris Rock has a duty to press full charges against Will Smith
Sunday's Oscars award ceremony broke new ground with a physical assault on Chris Rock by Will Smith, in an incident whose details are now well known by practically everyone in the English-speaking world. Immediately after, Sean "Puffy" Combs tried to play it off as a mere squabble among the pretties in Hollywood. "Okay, Will and Chris, we're going to solve that like family at the Gold Party, but right now we're moving on with love."
Smith later won Best Actor for his turn in King Richard, but outside Hollywood, who cares? He cried through an apology about the incident during his speech, but who cares about that, either?
I won't delve into the details of their sordid personal affairs more than to say that there may be reason for Smith to be sensitive and angry when it comes to other men either disrespecting or giving attention to his wife. But here's what we can anticipate, given the facts available.
Will Smith will apologize to Chris Rock again in private. This private apology will be made public, and Rock will be pressured by his agent and others in Hollywood to make nice and accept Smith's apology.
But Chris Rock has a duty, not only to himself, but to comedy as an institution, to do nothing short of prosecuting Will Smith to the fullest extent of the law.
In this scenario, Chris Rock represents comedy. Comedy is nonpartisan. It holds no allegiances to the political flavors of the month, year, or generation, and it challenges the status quo wherever that's needed. See Richard Pryor; George Carlin; and the long list of legends that have come before Chris Rock, who is a legend by his own right. As Mel Brooks once said, great risks are a requirement of great comedy. "Comedy," he says, "is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king's ear, always telling the truth about human behavior."
In the same sense, Will Smith now represents Hollywood and the cultural status quo. In that status quo, men and women are equal and should be treated equally. But also, according to that status quo, you can make fun of a bald man for being bald and it's hilarious, but you cannot make fun of a bald woman without expecting to be physically assaulted by her husband if he happens to be in the audience and finds it offensive.
You can expect a lot of equivocation over this incident — "Chris Rock had it coming" or "both parties acted wrongly."
But those assertions are lies. Chris Rock has absolutely nothing to apologize for. He simply told a joke. To put it even simpler, he just said something, and he was physically assaulted for his having done so. Will Smith assaulted another person for saying something that he didn't like. Discerning right and wrong in this instance couldn't be simpler for a healthy society.
What precedent will we set if Will Smith gets away with this without significant and meaningful legal penalties? Justice is not only about retribution, but about deterrence. If we simply conclude that Smith shouldn't have slapped him, sure, but Rock also shouldn't have told a joke that Smith didn't like in some sort of evenly applied culpability, then where are we?
We'll continue to be in the place where we are. Where certain people can be ridiculed and others can't be ridiculed based upon their social position. And that is a place where comedy can no longer exist in any meaningful sense, just as it doesn't exist anymore on late-night television, where this rule is strictly followed.
Chris Rock didn't ask for it, but he's in a unique position to be a hero and to shape the immediate future of comedy in this country.
Allow me to be clear. Comedy cannot die. Comedy will always exist, because it's a requirement of the human condition. But the best comedy requires fertile ground for growth, and free speech provides that. In the Eastern Bloc in the Soviet days, the best jokes were told quietly across the table at lunch for fear of reprisal by the status quo. In America, the best jokes were showcased loudly enough on television and elsewhere for the status quo to both hear and fear.
Again, the joke told by Chris Rock was innocuous. It could have been told by Jerry Seinfeld, Dave Chapelle, Bill Burr, or any of their counterparts willing to take a chance in order to be funny. If Chris Rock concedes without pressing charges, he is conceding something greater than that slap he endured from a childish Will Smith.
Photo credit: Twitter video screen grab.