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Academy Awards Make History, but Not Entirely About the Movies

From its updated format and diverse slate of recipients to the unscripted violence on stage, the 94th Academy Awards made history, but not quite as expected.
Academy Awards Make History, but Not Entirely About the Movies

The Slap

There were plenty of history-making moments at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles on March 27, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences could not have anticipated all of them.

The most shocking moment of the night was the slap that Will Smith unloaded on Chris Rock after he made a joke about Jada Pinkett Smith's close cropped haircut (presumably caused by a medical condition called alopecia) and the profanity that ensued as Smith returned to his seat. The surprising and tense exchange then turned surreal as Smith won the Oscar for Best Actor for his role in King Richard a few minutes later.

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Sophie Gilbert writes in The Atlantic, "It was unsettling to see Smith accept his Oscar—shortly after being counseled by Denzel Washington and his publicist—and receive a standing ovation." She also says it was strange to hear him claim to be a protector and a vessel for love "right after the most flagrant outburst of violence in Oscars history."

The Unreality of Will Smith's Oscar Slap (Sarah Gilbert - The Atlantic)

Excerpt from The Atlantic: Smith’s behavior was so extraordinary that it seemed as though he might be in crisis. It’s possible that his agitation over a dig at his wife stems from, as he writes in his 2021 memoir, Will, the trauma of his inability to protect his mother from his father’s violence as a child. There's purportedly an eight-figure bidding war ongoing for the film rights to Smith’s book and the opportunity to turn his life story into a biopic. Some feared that Will’s brutal honesty in his book could harm his reputation, but it’s done the opposite, and helped him connect with his audience like never before."

As Travis Andrews writes in his article "The Climax of Will Smith’s Radical-Vulnerability Era" for the Washington Post, "Will Smith, the once unflappable movie star, spent the past decade being drastically honest with the public. That may have ended with a slap."

The Climax of Will Smith's Radical-Vulnerability Era (Travis Andrews - The Washington Post)

Excerpt from The Washington Post: If you haven’t paid attention to Smith recently, you’d be forgiven for finding his tears shocking. This, after all, is a celebrity who built his brand on being a smooth, unflappable character who rarely loses his cool. In his speech, he repeatedly suggested that he’s needed to “protect” those he loved: “Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said. “I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people and to be a river to my people.” But, as the academy opens a formal review of his actions, Smith may learn that the person he most needs to protect is himself.
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On Monday, the Academy condemned Smith's actions and opened an official inquiry into the incident saying they "will explore further action and consequences in accordance with our Bylaws, Standards of Conduct and California law."

Smith also issued an apology on Instagram, stating (in part), "My behavior at last night's Academy Awards was unacceptable and inexcusable. I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris. I was out of line and I was wrong. I would also like to apologize to the Academy, the producers of the show, all the attendees and everyone watching around the world. I deeply regret that my behavior has stained what has been an otherwise gorgeous journey for all of us. I am a work in progress."


The Academy began "disciplinary proceedings" against Smith on Wednesday and revealed that he was asked to leave the show but refused to do so. According to a statement released after an emergency board of governors meeting, "The actor’s actions were in violation of the Academy’s Standards of Conduct, including inappropriate physical contact, abusive or threatening behavior, and compromising the integrity of the Academy." Smith could face suspension, expulsion or other sanctions if the board chooses to take action at its next scheduled meeting on April 18.


On Friday, Smith issued a statement resigning from the Academy and said that he will accept any additional consequences the Academy’s Board of Governors deems appropriate. He called his behavior "shocking, painful and inexcusable" and wrote, "The list of those I have hurt is long and includes Chris, his family, many of my dear friends and loved ones, all those in attendance, and global audiences at home. I betrayed the trust of the Academy and deprived other nominees and winners of their opportunity to celebrate and be celebrated for their extraordinary work. I am heartbroken.”

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The Historic Wins

Although controversy surrounded this year's broadcast as the Academy decided to give out selected technical awards during an untelevised pre-show to save time and "the slap" captured most of the headlines from the evening, there were still some truly history-making accomplishments from the event.

These consequential achievements included a best supporting actress award for Ariana DeBose, the first openly queer woman of color to win in that category, and a best supporting actor Oscar for Troy Kutsur, the first deaf man to win an Academy Award for acting.

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And when the heartwarming drama, CODA, received the Oscar for Best Picture, it was also a first for a streaming service, Apple TV+, and for a film that debuted at the Sundance Film Festival.

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This VOX article from Emily St. James perfectly summarizes these historic wins.

Two Actors — and One Major Corporation — that Broke Boundaries at the 2022 Oscars (Emily St. James - VOX)

Excerpt from VOX: Viewers are increasingly aware of how many opportunities just aren’t available to the various performers and craftspeople who have the potential to make history. And even when we take the idea of breaking new ground for diversity out of the equation, we’re still left with lots of questions about who wins awards in an industry that is rapidly changing. As watching movies at home via streaming services becomes more and more central to how many of us consume film, the Oscars have been reluctant to embrace that change, even as more and more streaming films are nominated for major awards.