“Will Smith just smacked the shit out of me”, says a stunned Chris Rock after taking a hard slap to the face onstage at the 2022 Academy Awards. Will Smith’s action impacts more than Chris Rock’s face, and raises all sorts of questions. Our resident lawyer, Jessyca Greenwood, shares her perspective and legal insights on last night’s Oscar smackdown.
If the Academy Awards aren’t your thing and you went to bed early like I did last night, then you missed what may turn out to be the most talked about moment in 2022 television history. The live and viewing audience witnessed an assault. If you did miss it, you can view the clip here.
Chris Rock told a joke about Jada Pinkett, and her husband, Will Smith, walked onto the stage, hit Chris Rock across the face, and went on to retort with profanity on live television. What’s more shocking than the act itself, is that the Oscars live broadcast continued without acknowledgement of the incident, and later gave the perpetrator, Will Smith, an award.
Let’s talk about the law of assault (at least the Canadian definition). Section 265 of the Criminal Code of Canada says a person commits assault when: without the consent of another person, they apply force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly. Simply put, it is an assault if one is making, or attempting to make, contact with another person without their consent. This is sometimes referred to as a common assault or simple assault, because it is not aggravated or with a weapon.
Potential defences to a charge of assault include: Provocation (which can reduce a charge), Consent (two people consented to a fight), or self-defence or defence of another. However, this incident was neither a consensual fight, nor was it self-defence or defence of another. Will Smith may have felt like he was defending his wife, but assaulting someone because they made a joke would not make out the requirements to advance a defence of another person because there has to be an element of protection of a person who is in danger. A provocation defence only comes in to play to reduce murder to manslaughter, which thankfully does not apply here.
This incident illustrates serious gaps in the way crime violates our societal norms, the way the law is applied and enforced, and the way we talk about equality. Here are a few observations and questions:
- Chris Rock didn’t stop the show or demand justice. Is this how we expect victims to act? Not all victims of crime immediately call police, demand that the person who hurt them be charged, or cry out for assistance.
- If Chris Rock had been a woman who was assaulted during a broadcast, by a man, would the show still have continued? Doubtful. The way we treat violence between genders continues to be shrouded in gender based stereotypes. It would NOT be okay to assault a woman, but Chris Rock “took it like a man” and the show went on.
- In 2022, why did a powerful female actress, offended by a joke, need her husband to stand up for her, resorting to violence to show his devotion? Where does this fall in the quest for gender equality?
- Is this incident a product of cancel-culture? Have we become too sensitive to hear a joke without an over-the-top or violent reaction? Will we resort to public displays of violence and vitriol to condemn anything we don’t like, even when said in jest?
- Or, has the practice of deeply personal attacks for the sake of comedy gone too far? It started with Ricky Gervais being praised for his acerbic takedowns of “Hollywood Elite”, and has evolved over the last decade into open season on people’s most sensitive shortcomings.
Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on the Oscars brings up all sorts of questions and there is a lot of gray area to explore. But, one thing is clear, this was an assault.
Further, it highlights that when people in positions of power commit crimes they are likely to be treated differently than those most vulnerable in society. Recently, I received an arrest call from a client who threw an empty styrofoam cup at his personal support worker. The police did not hesitate to lay a charge of assault. My client said that the alleged victim said something that agitated him. This was not persuasive to the police, and it won’t be a defence in court.