Why should Will Smith’s Oscar and Academy membership be up for debate, if the same level of punishment isn’t given to other (white) actors?

Have you heard about what happened at the Oscars? Of course, that’s a redundant question at this point, as ever since Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at Sunday’s (27 March) ceremony, the event has made headlines constantly all over the world. It was an extraordinary moment; one that will most likely be referenced in awards ceremonies for years to come.

Around half an hour after the incident, Will Smith won his first Oscar, scooping the ‘Best Actor’ award for his portrayal of Serena and Venus Williams’ father in King Richard. In his speech, he said sorry to the Academy and his peers for the outburst and then gave an additional apology in a statement the next day. Addressing Rock directly, he wrote: “I was out of line and I was wrong. I am embarrassed and my actions were not indicative of the man I want to be. There is no place for violence in a world of love and kindness.”

Despite the remorse shown, speculation about the possible consequences for the actor began almost immediately. First, people suggested that he should lose his Oscar. Then, on Wednesday, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences began “disciplinary proceedings” against Smith for his behaviour. In a statement released after a governors’ meeting, Smith’s actions were deemed to be in violation of the Academy’s standards of conduct.

The message states that some of these terms include “inappropriate physical contact, abusive or threatening behaviour, and compromising the integrity of the Academy.” 

Apparently, as a result, Smith could face suspension, expulsion or other sanctions. The severity of Smith’s actions has been debated for days. However, this potential response from the Academy, as well as some A-listers, feels like an uncomfortable jump to overly punish Smith for a much lesser wrong than others who’ve faced the same fate.

Looking at the context of those who have been ejected from the Academy in the past, for this to take place in Smith’s case would feel misjudged in comparison. Four of the five people who have been kicked out of the organisation are those who have been convicted of sexual offences: producer Harvey Weinstein, actor Bill Cosby, director Roman Polanski and cinematographer Adam Kimmel. (The Godfather Part II actor, Carmine Caridi was expelled for producing VCR copies of preview screeners and sharing them around.) 

While Smith’s offence can be narrowed down to this one incident, the others who’ve lost their status as Academy members had been accused of multiple instances of misconduct, with years’ worth of complaints.

For Will Smith to join that group of offenders would look like the Academy rushing to punish a Black man much sooner, and under much different circumstances, than others who’ve done worse. While not excusing what he did, it’s important to still consider the message it sends out to take such a sudden harsh stance against someone who reacted poorly to a joke made in response to a loved one’s medical condition, knowing that they’ve not acted as efficiently in the past.