Will Smith at 55: Has the actor’s legacy been permanently stained?

The public perception of the acclaimed actor changed drastically after unexpectedly slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars. Although he’s not appearing in any productions soon, he’s still active and could be preparing a comeback

Alonso Martínez
Will Smith
Will Smith at the F1 Grand Prix of Saudi Arabia, at Jeddah Corniche Circuit on March 19, 2023.Anadolu Agency (via Getty Images)

It was, in Chris Rock’s words, “the greatest night in the history of television.” Nobody could have expected what happened on March 27, 2022, at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, during the 94th Academy Awards. Will Smith, who was nominated in the Best Actor category for his acclaimed work in King Richard, playing tennis legends Venus and Serena Williams’ father, got on stage after an awkward joke made by Chris Rock about Smith’s wife, actress Jada Pinkett Smith’s looks, and slapped the comedian. He then yelled at Rock, who managed to defuse the situation with another joke.

What was most shocking for some was that Smith actually won the award for Best Actor and was allowed to give an acceptance speech, which resulted in a surreal experience for the audience at home as he received a standing ovation. According to an Academy librarian, the altercation was likely the first incident of on-stage violence in the history of the Academy Awards. What should have been the most important highlight in Smith’s almost 40-year career became what seems to be an indelible stain on his legacy and the well-respected image he maintained since his early hip-hop days (even rappers like Eminem mocked his clean-cut style).

When Smith started as an actor in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (a sitcom built around him created by NBC) in 1990, he set for himself the goal of becoming “the biggest movie star in the world,” which he achieved in very few years. The show was acclaimed (today it is considered one of the best programs of all time), and its success became an important moment for hip-hop and Black culture on television.

Will Smith in a promotional image for 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'
Will Smith in a promotional image for 'The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.'NBC (NBCUniversal via Getty Images)

Later, his role in Independence Day catapulted him to international fame, being one of the highest-grossing films of all time at that point. The actor showcased his action-hero chops, which would later help him achieve his dream of becoming a big movie star. In the years that followed, Smith continued to take on diverse roles that showcased his acting range. He starred in emotionally charged dramas like The Pursuit of Happyness and Ali, proving that he was not just an action star but a versatile actor capable of tackling complex and compelling characters.

As his fame grew, Will Smith used his platform to address important social issues, advocate for equality and justice, and inspire others to pursue their dreams. He became an inspiration for fans around the world, an example of success and humility, and one of the most beloved actors of his era. However, in his personal life, there seemed to be conflict, especially after the revelations he and his wife made on the show Red Table Talk. Both have expressed unconventional practices in their marriage, jokingly calling their commitment “bad marriage for life,” and both admitted to having extramarital affairs. Moreover, Pinkett Smith had been diagnosed with alopecia areata in 2018 and had to shave her head due to the condition, a reason why neither Smith nor his wife would find Chris Rock’s joke funny (although the recording shows the actor laughing initially before storming on stage).

Will Smith, Chris Rock
Will Smith hits Chris Rock onstage during the 94th Academy Awards in Hollywood, on March 27, 2022.BRIAN SNYDER (REUTERS)

Following public backlash, Smith issued a formal apology in an Instagram post announcing his resignation from membership in the Academy. The AMPAS President, David Rubin, accepted the resignation. The Academy later announced its decision to ban Smith from future Oscar galas and associated events for 10 years. The scandal caused several film projects that Smith had been involved in to be put on hold, except for Emancipation, a historical action thriller film in which he starred. Although Smith’s performance was praised, the film received mixed reviews, and audiences didn’t seem ready to talk about the actor.

Months after the incident, Chris Rock, who didn’t want to press charges, finally spoke out. It was during a comedy special where he stated: “It still hurts… Will Smith practices selective outrage. Everybody knows what happened. And everybody really knows I had nothing to do with that shit. I didn’t have any ‘entanglements,’” he said, referring to Pinkett Smith’s description of the affair she had with rapper August Alsina while married to Smith. Pinkett Smith made the admission directly to Smith on an episode of Red Table Talk. Leslie Jones, a friend of Rock, said the comedian sought counseling after the incident. “It really affected him.” Rock previously opened up about the trauma of being bullied as a kid and admitted to taking therapy to deal with anger issues.

As for Smith’s return to the big screen, there are few clues about it. His only confirmed credit as an actor is in the untitled fourth Bad Boys film alongside Martin Lawrence. He’s attached as a producer to several projects, but it seems that he’s still waiting to make a comeback. Meanwhile, it’s worth asking, when he returns to Hollywood, will the audiences be able to see him again as an inspiration? Or is the incident going to be a permanent stain on his legacy?

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