Who are the Victims and Villains in the Academy Awards Will Smith Slap Saga?

New Information is Driving Public Perception in This Dynamic, Multi-Player Crisis

4/1/22 – – New information is coming to light every day about actor Will Smith’s physical and verbal eruption during last weekend’s broadcast of the 94th Academy Awards. Scrambling to keep up with the drama’s twists and turns, news media outlets are digesting the revelations and, true to form, turning their attention to assessing blame and identifying victims and villains.

In Chapter 5 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient (“Culpability and Crises: Proclaiming Villains and Victims”), we examine the fact that reporters covering crises — and this definitely is a crises with a fascinating cast of characters — believe it’s their job to identify winners and losers, bad guys and good guys, victims and villains. They want to help their readers or viewers determine who is responsible for the mess and who got hurt. And as is the case with most crises, the labels of victim and villain in this saga are not so clear cut.

The challenge for crisis counselors assisting individuals or organizations involved in crises is to do everything possible to keep their clients out of the villain column. In this case, you may be thinking, Will Smith is the only villain. Everyone else involved is a victim.

Not so fast.

To illustrate the dynamic nature of reputational crises, let’s give each major player in what’s being called “The Slap Heard Around the World” a score on the “Victim v. Villain” scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being the most-harmed victim and 10 being the most-dastardly villain. In other words, a score higher than 5 represents a level of villainy, a score lower than 5 denotes victimhood.

VICTIM 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 VILLAIN

Chris Rock

Initially, the comedian/presenter, who was on the receiving end of the slap, was taking considerable heat for the inappropriateness of the joke that triggered Smith (Rock may or may not have known about Jada Pinkett Smith’s alopecia). If this were a kindergarten class, “Chris Rock” would be an acceptable answer to the teacher’s question, “Who started this?”

But observers soon turned their scorn to praise of Rock’s composed, professional handling of the confrontation. Rock has declined to press assault charges against Smith (smart decision) and, according to news reports, he received a prolonged standing ovation from a packed house Wednesday evening in Boston when he took the stage on his comedy tour. Explaining that he is “still processing “ the encounter, he’s  withheld comment, refusing to add fuel to the fire.

Victim v. Villain Score: 3

Suggested Strategy: Stay the course. This event could actually help your career.

Jada Pinkett Smith

No question, Chris Rock’s joke was at Ms. Smith’s expense, and the medical condition alopecia is no laughing matter. She also has to be embarrassed by her husband’s behavior and must regret that he screwed up what should have been one of the most important nights of his career. Questioning her victim status, however, news sources are sharing video of her apparently laughing immediately after her husband’s outburst and pointing out that she has publicly expressed comfort with and acceptance of her hair loss. Her only public comment so far has been this post on Instagram: “This is a season for healing and I’m here for it.”  

Victim v. Villain Score: 2

Suggested Strategy: Stay on the high road. Your husband has now apologized to everyone. Support that de-escalation.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences

Will Smith ruined the Academy’s biggest night of the year. He sucked all the oxygen out of the Dolby Theatre, killing every positive storyline, including the excellent work of the broadcast’s first-ever Black producer. A strong case could be made for victimhood. 

Critics (including me) have looked beyond that, however, lambasting the Academy for allowing Smith to stay in the theatre and come back on stage to receive his Oscar for Best Actor. In addition, it took the organization too long to release a meaningful statement condemning Smith’s violence and profanity. But in the last 48 hours, the Academy has spoken with far more clarity about the disciplinary process underway and asserted that they did ask Smith to leave, only to have him refuse (as of this writing, there are conflicting reports regarding how or if this directive was communicated to Smith).

Recognizing the unthinkable optics of Smith being physically removed by security personnel or Los Angeles Police officers, Academy representatives made the difficult but I believe correct decision to allow Smith to stay in his seat for the remainder of the ceremony, and come on stage to accept his Oscar. While the Academy’s ultimate Victim v. Villain score will be determined by the nature of the punishment they administer, they’ve earned a neutral rating so far.

Victim v. Villain Score: 5

Suggested Strategy: Administer strong disciplinary action (as soon as possible), including the suspension of Smith’s membership in the Academy for a period of one year or more. Allow him to keep his Oscar, which he earned before his unfortunate behavior.

Will Smith 

While at first a few defenders proffered chivalry as the motivation for the 53-year-old actor’s assault (what else could he do once Rock’s joke challenged Smith’s manhood and the honor of his wife?), it’s been hard even for people close to Smith to offer any credible explanation, let alone forgiveness, for his meltdown. There’s near consensus in press coverage that he deeply hurt his family, Chris Rock, fellow members of the Academy (including the evening’s hosts, presenters, producers, nominees and Oscar winners), and himself. Commentators are warning that all stand-up comedians now are at greater risk of violence during their performances, and abusive parents and spouses will be emboldened to model Smith’s ugly anger management.

As he awaits the Academy’s punishment, he probably deserves a 10 on our scale (the worst-possible villain score). But I gave him a 9, assuming that such bizarre, self-destructive behavior was a cry for help, revealing serious personal problems beyond my understanding.    

Victim v. Villain Score: 9

Suggested Strategy: Don’t wait for the Academy to rule. Resign your membership immediately, stating that you hope a time will come — after you’ve gotten help — when you can seek reinstatement. Get professional help and be very public about your treatment. Once healthy, lead a discussion of the unacceptability of violence within families and society as a response to pressures, stress or perceived slights. You have an important voice and have the reputational equity to earn a second chance.

So, those are my scores. Yours may be different. It will be interesting in the coming weeks to track the changing status of the players in this drama. They all walked on stage (literally and figuratively) with well-defined reputations. That makes a difference. And the actions they take, the messages they communicate, and any new information that comes out will move them one way or the other on our Victims v. Villains scale.

That’s the challenge and opportunity of crisis response. 

UPDATE: 4/2/22 – – Yesterday, Will Smith resigned his membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, stating: “Change takes time and I am committed to doing the work to ensure that I never allow violence to overtake reason.” I believe that by taking this action and making this commitment, Smith slides more towards neutral on our Victim v. Villain scale.


UPDATE: 4/8/22 – – The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences today announced that Will Smith has been banned from attending Academy Award ceremonies for 10 years.

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