Why Will Smith's Oscars attack on Chris Rock is emblematic of wider issue with casual violence and misogyny - Mark Casci

Sunday evening should have been the crowning glory of Will Smith’s career.

The 53-year-old actor received the Best Actor accolade for his portrayal of Richard Williams, the father of tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams whom he personally coached to become multiple grand slam winners despite having next to no experience in the sport.

Smith’s highly acclaimed performance in King Richard follows a lifetime of his taking on substantive roles such as boxing legend Muhammad Ali and self-made business mogul Chris Gardner.

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The Oscar win was widely anticipated and should have been the veritable cherry on top of the cake of a glittering career for the Philadelphian entertainer.

Will Smith striking Chris Rock at the Oscars.Will Smith striking Chris Rock at the Oscars.
Will Smith striking Chris Rock at the Oscars.

However, as readers doubtlessly will be aware, Smith’s name is not being discussed along the lines of his acting prowess but rather for his extraordinary reaction to a heartless joke at the expense of his wife Jada Pinkett Smith by comedian Chris Rock.

Following a remark about his wife’s appearance, Smith rose from his chair and struck Rock with a slap to the face, a move which stunned the assembled audience along with millions of viewers at home.

The attack predictably drew messages of condemnation from the world of entertainment - as well as leader of the opposition Sir Keir Starmer - who decreed Smith’s actions as being completely unacceptable.

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While it is easy to write off Smith’s aggression towards Rock as a Hollywood tantrum or publicity stunt, it needs to be viewed through a wider prism.

Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard.Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard.
Smith as Richard Williams in King Richard.

Violence in the workplace - ultimately the venue for the slap - is an ongoing issue around the world. The latest statistics from the Health & Safety Executive on incidents of violence in the workplace showed 688,000 incidents reported in the UK alone.

Of these figures, running until 2020 prior to lockdowns sent workers home in their droves, 389,000 of which were threats and 299,000 were assaults.

While these numbers constitute a drop from 739,000 incidents the year prior, figures from Usdaw, after surveying 2,700 staff members, found some 88 per cent of workers had experienced verbal abuse, with 60 per cent having been threatened with violence and further 9 per cent having been subjected to a physical assault.

Actions have consequences.

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Smith posing with his Oscar for Best Actor.Smith posing with his Oscar for Best Actor.
Smith posing with his Oscar for Best Actor.

While the Hollywood glitterati may have been savvy enough to establish their woke credentials in lambasting Smith, there are far many more who will have viewed his striking of Rock as justifiable and indeed feel emboldened to solidify their own self perceptions of honour and strength with physical aggression.

I say this from personal experience.

I was reminded of an evening as an undergraduate when, as a staffer at a Leeds bar I was told I was going to be killed by a patron who was being ejected for smoking cannabis. I also recalled when, as a Yorkshire Post journalist, I was informed I was going to be stabbed by a local youth as I covered the tragic death of a youth at the hands of a dangerous dog in a Leeds suburb.

More widely I know of numerous occasions when close friends, then employed by various police forces, have been subjected to serious physical assaults when discharging their duties.

The issue is rife and role models such as Smith - whom I hold in considerable regard for his acting abilities - have a duty to be a vanguard against such afflictions.

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However Smith was not the only serious transgressor that evening. Rock’s remarks about Smith’s wife - who suffers from alopecia - speak to another affliction, one that normalises casual misogyny against women and forgives personal abuse of women’s appearances.

Smith had every justification to be affronted by this and could have used his platform to decry the abuse of his wife along these lines. Instead he succumbed to toxic masculinity, an impulse all men have a duty to constrain.

I don’t doubt Smith’s sincerity in his subsequent apology but the damage done by his actions will be long lived, and have real world consequences.