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Thunderclap Presages Our Dying Culture

It’s been a while. I have been on sabbatical.

I am compelled to throw in on the Will Smith/ Chris Rock episode. It slapped me awake, like a thunderclap.

Will Smith is an icon of American elegance and talent, a silver screen hero, firmly above the top tier of any A-list. I admire his work, the whole body of it. He has made a couple stinkers, but when he gets the right roles, his films and performances in them have the raw power to alter our collective values, our shared American culture.

But, damn. The man let us down.

Chris Rock, by contrast and comparison, is a huge talent in divergent veins. He is both hilarious and a solid actor. His strength is live performance, an art form far more difficult than reading cue cards and repeating camera angles. Being funny, consistently, is his stock in trade, and he is very good at it. Yet the hazard of his craft exposes himself as every utterance is dissected by individual and collective ears, and sometimes the tide of laughter wanes and dissolves in groans or, worse, silence.

A comedian’s greatest strength and challenge is tested by timing and taunting us with elements of the truth about what should be obvious. In Rock’s case, he is both eloquent and biting. He is the George Carlin of this generation.

Being Chris Rock professionally is more difficult than being Will Smith. Rock must prove himself every time he is in the light, where Smith could have retired yesterday as a champion. Rock is liked more than respected but he has rapidly become a more dignified icon of America. As far as film goes, Rock has been in some stinkers, too, (mostly comedies that are self-effacing) but his acting chops are solid. His lead role in a season of Fargo a couple years back will attest to his capacity and talent.

Rock comes out of this statesman-like. Smith comes out of this in rehab.

I watched the clip many times and at first blush I thought it was staged. I guess not. But I have some lingering doubt.

Three observations:

First, the sequencing of emotions and acts in such a brief period by Will Smith. Laughter, anger, a feigned spontaneous yet premeditated attack, tears, and goofy dancing. I suspect an actor’s true personality is never far from the surface of his craft, and in Smith’s case I see a guy who broods over his booze. The mercurial nature of it all leads me to think he was smashed and would have been better off sleeping it off at home. Damage done. Don’t be surprised if Smith takes a lengthy sabbatical and dries out.

Second, the catalyst for the shocking battery was not Chris Rock, but Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett.

Forget the lame joke about hair. The annual ceremony is also a roast, so when the beautiful people put on their tuxes and gowns they better have some metaphorical Kevlar sewn in.

Jada Pinkett is a beautiful but complicated woman. In my casual observation over the past decades the Mrs. has been alone in trying to bring Mr. Smith down by elbowing him out of the limelight through bizarre Hollywood acts and innuendo and awkward P.R. She doesn’t stand by her man; she stands behind him, kneeing him in the back to react to her silliness on her behalf.

Will Smith is alone in responsibility for his actions, but Jada Pinkett could have stopped him from rising from his seat. She could have stayed mute and killed Rock’s flat joke with a look of boredom. Jada Pinkett is like your pal’s high school girlfriend who is always trying to get him into fights, literally, for her honor because he likes getting his balls squeezed when she isn’t breaking them. We have all known that couple and it is painful to watch.

Last, sadly, there’s a racial fork of a couple prongs. The silence from the African American community influencers (it is difficult for me to say “leaders”) is deafening. Like the Jussie Smollett crime, the black community is not up in arms either in support or condemnation of Will or Chris. Call it collective passive disgust.

Or anger. The Academy Awards has a rich nostalgic history and is presently struggling too much to be relevant today and trying too hard to be woke. It is no longer about the best. So what, right?

Is there anything at all about the Academy Awards that elevates the disadvantaged and marginalized in our poorest communities? No. Never has been, though. The Smith assault itself was a loud air horn signaling open season on the crudest of reactions: random violence, and its potential for uncontrolled elevation.

Chris Rock’s and Will Smith’s lifelong body of work has always transcended race as both men are admired by everyone. They have made themselves, and a whole lot of other people, bags of money. So the two black men, who we root for, had earned the stage front and center on Hollywood’s big night, yet managed to get in a pathetic altercation that screams at us all. Is there no class left in our icons? Is it necessary to be so base and vulgar in public?

Oh, Lord, we need to expect more from our cultural heroes, especially when they are congratulating themselves for the adulation from all of us who are “out there in the dark.”*

I think African Americans who care about the collective values of America and the specific culture of being black in America are outraged by this, though silent. One step forward, two steps back.

Will Smith is physically imposing while Chris Rock is not. Smith did not telegraph his intentions. The slap was a sucker punch at a man who was unprepared. That makes Will Smith a coward.

The result is that this never goes away. Smith may go to rehab, may separate from his wife (again), and may go full BLM, hiding beneath that shrinking skirt to appease the loudest fringe of the victim community. He will fail at all three. I can’t say I am rooting for him now.

Rock could become governor of California. Quite a change of fortune.

Let me close with something that caught my eye recently, a quote from Sabinus, a 5th century Roman patrician, as that empire and its culture were then in sharp decline:

“The Roman Empire is filled with misery, but it is luxurious. It is dying, but it laughs.”

Maybe the Academy Awards will have better ratings next year.


* From the 1950 film “Sunset Boulevard” starring Gloria Swanson who portrayed an actress whose best years were behind her. Any more info would spoil a tremendous movie.

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