Credit: Mirko Fabian via Unsplash

What assaults matter to the Oscars?

By Ashmita Shanthakumar

Will Smith’s ban from the academy brings into question how the Academy punishes assault and what assaults they deem punishable.

Will Smith’s slapping of Chris Rock at the Oscars this year was a huge cultural moment leading to lots of controversy. No matter whose side you fall on – whether you support Smith’s right to defend his wife or if you support Rock and the right of comedians to not be risking violence for their jokes – the Academy’s decision to ban Will Smith from the Oscar’s for 10 years due to the assault is an interesting one. It opens a reflective can of worms regarding the history of assault in the Oscars, and leads to the question of “what assaults matter to the Oscars?” To attempt to answer this question, here are some assaults in the past that the Academy did not intervene in at all. 

In 2003, Roman Polanski won an Oscar for The Pianist. He was not in attendance at the time because he was fleeing the country to avoid a conviction for a statutory rape charge. The academy gave him a standing ovation and an Oscar in absentia. His most recent accusation of sexual assault was in 2017. In 2018, he was finally expelled from the Academy due to pressure from the #MeToo movement but it’s worth noting that no action was taken against him before. 

In 1973, Marlon Brando decided to decline his Oscar due to the dehumanization of indigenous people in film and he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to decline for him. John Wayne tried to assault her for doing this and had to be held back by security. However, there were no repercussions for his actions. In fact, Brando and Littlefeather were mocked by the media and even the presenters, including Clint Eastwood.

There are multiple other men accused of sexual assualt (by multiple victims in many cases) who still receive Oscars and are not banned by the Academy including Woody Allen, Casey Affleck, Harvey Weinstein (his membership has been stripped but he is not banned), Kevin Spacey, and many more. In comparison to these very serious crimes, Smith’s slap appears a minor misdemeanor and yet has been dealt with more swiftly and punitively.

“In comparison to these very serious crimes, Smith’s slap appears a minor misdemeanor and yet has been dealt with more swiftly and punitively.”

While this decision might be a move to safeguard the attendants, hosts, and comedians and to show the repercussions of assault in the future, they should’ve gone about it in a different way. Punishing a black man for an impulsive decision, however wrong it was, whilst continuing to associate with and not taking any action against (predominantly white) known accussees and perpatrators of sexual assaults is highly problematic to say the least. 

It’s also worth noting that Smith repeatedly apologised for the event both during his speech  when he won the Oscar and afterwards. An act he stands alone in. Smith even resigned from the Academy before they took the decision to ban him. His statement apologises to Rock, the Academy, audiences, other winners, and more. He says that he is “heartbroken” and that “Change takes time and I am committed to doing the work to ensure that I never again allow violence to overtake reason.”

If the Academy truly wants to take a stand against assault, they must punish everyone who is accused of it, especially if they have shown no remorse for their actions.


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