On slapping Chris Rock in the face

Photo by Ruth Fremson, The New York Times.

The highlight of the 94th Academy Awards ceremony last night had nothing to do with any award. As he was presenting the award for Best Documentary Feature, Chris Rock singled out Jada Pinkett Smith’s haircut and said he was looking forward to G.I. Jane 2. Her husband, superstar Will Smith, sitting with her in the front row as a Best Actor nominee, got out of his chair and slapped Rock in the face, then shouted curses at him after he sat back down.

The joke requires context – Pinkett Smith is balding, and appeared at the event, one of the most important fashion nights of the year, with a shaved head, the look Demi Moore sported in her Razzie-winning performance in 1997’s mostly forgotten war movie G.I. Jane.

I was 5 when that movie released, and I wasn’t thinking about it. I wasn’t watching the Oscars, either.

I might have been thinking about the 2016 presidential election, during which eventual winner Donald Trump threatened to “spill the beans” about rival Sen. Ted Cruz’ (R- Texas) wife, then tweeted a picture of Heidi Cruz next to his own wife, Melania Trump, captioned “there’s no need to spill the beans, a picture is worth a thousand words.” This insinuation requires no context. Over the next several years, Cruz would campaign and dial phones for Trump, notably adopting his campaign tactics during his 2018 reelection campaign and even prominently supporting reversing the 2020 election in Trump’s favor. His refusal to stand up for his wife in a meaningful way – he sent some indignant tweets about it, just like he talked about what a dangerous man Trump was, statements which were quickly forgotten once he fell into line with the nominee and eventual president – is one of many humiliations that have lingered on the senator like a bad smell over the years.

I think about Ted Cruz more often than most people do.

What I was watching was an interwoven NHL double-header as the Minnesota Wild hosted the Colorado Avalanche and the Toronto Maple Leafs played the Florida Panthers for the first time this season, four elite teams in potential playoff matchups as the regular season draws to a close. Early in the third period, Wild defenseman Matt Dumba leveled Avalanche forward Mikko Rantanen at the blueline. The hit was clean enough, but, as many open-ice hits do, it appeared to target Rantanen’s head in real-time, and his body did spin in that signature way usually resulting from a bad hit.

Immediately, Avalanche center Nathan MacKinnon, perhaps the sport’s biggest star, spun away from the play, letting the puck slide past him, threw his gloves off and took Dumba to task-

There’s been an oft-complained about rash in recent years of fights immediately following big, clean hits, a complaint that’s both ahistorical – rewind to the ‘80s and check out what happens if you lay even the cleanest of hits on Gretzky – and well wide of the point. It doesn’t matter whether Dumba’s hit was OK according to the letter of the NHL’s extremely malleable rulebook, what matters is it wasn’t OK according to MacKinnon. It might not have even mattered that MacKinnon and Rantanen are longtime linemates – former teammates go after each other all the time, hockey players aren’t angels. Maybe all that matters is they were wearing the same sweater, and MacKinnon knew that whatever Dumba did to Rantanen he could do to him as well.

Any thought about whether or not joking about balding people is morally wrong or what sort of formal punishment it calls for or trying to apply legal terminology to Smith’s slap misses the exact same point. The written-down rules regarding Pinkett Smith’s hair, whatever you personally think someone ought to be able to say about her or do to her, those don’t matter. What matters is Smith will deck you if you make fun of her. That’s the penalty, carried out by the guy who assigned it. And written out like that, yeah, it sounds a little like “judge, jury and executioner” – if Smith had, like, pulled out a gun and shot him, this would be a different conversation.

This is a good thing. This is something that should not be so unusual. Stand up for your significant others. Stand up for your friends! Find friends who stand up for you. Stand up for abstract concepts – shout down people who repeat transsexist rhetoric. Punch Nazis. If you’re not willing to actually fight for the people or things you care about, question whether or not you really care about them.

More and more research comes out every year indicating that our powerful instinct to cooperate, to take care of each other, was the key to humanity becoming the dominant species on Earth. If we solve our current problems, this is how we’re going to do it – by fighting, maybe a little harder than is socially acceptable, for each other.

***

I haven’t seen CODA. Almost no one has seen CODA – it released Aug. 13 on Apple+, one of the smallest streaming services, with little fanfare and had a scant theatrical release. I’m not actually seeing a domestic release at all, it looks like it only played in Mexico. According to third-party streaming data collecting, Oscar nominations didn’t even help it, as only 375,000 people streamed it after nominations were announced Feb. 8, and fewer than 1 million people have streamed it overall. Every other Best Picture candidate was into seven figures just since the nominations.

The fact that all headlines are going to be about celebrity slapfights highlights the fact that, more than a decade now after broadening the Best Picture category, the Academy continues to fail to appeal to align with mass viewership, and, at least tonight, it feels like that’s the Academy’s fault. The same Hollywood is in charge of production and distribution, so why does it so often feel like there’s a wall between what’s produced for mass consumption and what Hollywood considers good? Why is it so often that the work the people within the industry have designated as their best isn’t the work that ends up in front of me?

People go see blockbusters because they see advertisements for blockbusters. That’s what a “blockbuster” is, and the thinking that the movie was really good used to be what designated them – the first blockbuster, Jaws, the movie that established the current business model, rode an unprecedented $1.8 million tidal wave of adverts – 1975 money, that’s about $9.53 million adjusted for inflation – into the record books not because it was a huge investment, but because Universal realized they had a special movie on their hands and they wanted everybody to see it. Somebody clearly thinks CODA is a special film, and Apple spent a Sundance record $25 million for the distribution rights on it, and then still didn’t put it in front of very many people.

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