A 94th Academy Awards that steadily maintained a buoyant spirit was rocked by an unbelievable exchange after Will Smith took offense to a joke made by Chris Rock about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith. After Rock joked to Pinkett Smith that he was looking forward to a sequel to GI Jane, Smith stood up from his seat near the stage, strode up to Rock and slapped him, the AP reports. (Rock's exact wording, in which he took aim at Pinkett Smith's shaved head: "Jada, I love you. GI Jane 2, can't wait to see it, all right?") After sitting back down, Smith shouted at Rock to “keep my wife's name out of your [expletive] mouth." When Rock, who also joked about Jada Pinkett Smith while hosting the Oscars in 2016, protested that it was just a GI Jane joke, Smith repeated the same line. Pinkett Smith revealed in 2018 that she was diagnosed with alopecia. She has often discussed the challenge of hair loss on Instagram and other social media platforms.
“That was the greatest night in the history of television,” Rock said, before awkwardly returning to presenting best documentary, which went to Questlove's Summer of Soul (...or When the Revolution Was Not Televised). The moment shocked the Dolby Theatre audience, which hushed during the confrontation, and viewers at home. At the commercial break, presenter Daniel Kaluuya came up to to hug Smith, and Denzel Washington escorted him to the side of the stage. The two talked and hugged and Tyler Perry came over to talk as well. A few minutes later, rapper Sean Combs—on stage to introduce a tribute to The Godfather—tried to play peacemaker and suggested Smith and Rock settle their differences at an Oscars afterparty. “Will and Chris, we’re going to solve that like family at the Gold party,” Combs said.
Smith went on to win his first Oscar later in the ceremony, a best actor prize for King Richard as had been widely expected, and the Guardian notes the audience cheered for his nomination clip and gave him a standing ovation when his name was announced. In an acceptance speech that the newspaper says was "all over the place" and included many repetitions of the word "protect," Smith said, "I’m being called on in my life to love people and to protect people, and to be a river to my people. You’ve got to be able to take abuse, you’ve got to smile and pretend like that’s OK.” He also apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees, saying, "Love will make you do crazy things," and "I hope the Academy invites me back." (See the night's winners, and more on the ceremony, here.)