Why didn't Chris Rock get enough credit for showing grace under pressure at Oscars?

The embarrassing spectacle between him and actor Will Smith at the event was witnessed by all, but the comedian handled it with the utmost decency

By Mahwash Ajaz

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Published: Tue 29 Mar 2022, 6:31 PM

Last updated: Tue 29 Mar 2022, 6:44 PM

You get slapped on a live broadcast. What do you do? You’re not starring in the Real Housewives of New Jersey or Bigg Boss. You’re hosting the Oscars. You’re a comedian. You make jokes for a living. Everyone knows that. You also suffer from NVLD (non-verbal learning disorder), and you’re an African-American man hosting a ceremony that has been classically dominated by white individuals. What do you do?

You smile, you keep smiling and you quip. “That was, uh, greatest night in the history of television.”

Chris Rock didn’t file a report against Will Smith. The actor did not apologise to the comedian during his acceptance speech for King Richard, but did it later via Instagram. Many celebrities and commentators applauded Rock for his composure and believed Smith should not have been allowed the platform after his behaviour at the ceremony. Physical assault, for anyone who’s not a celebrity, would have had very different consequences.

The dominant narrative has been about this alone: is assault justified in any way or are comedians beyond reproach? While both debates are credible and pave way for healthy discussions, Rock’s ability to stay cool under pressure has not been a part of discourses. What does it take for someone to handle that sort of an attack, to stand smiling and gracefully move ahead with the rest of the show? He seemed shaken for a tiny moment when he fumbled the words between ‘documentary’ and ‘award’ but that was about it. He has made no comment online since, even though his Instagram is flooded with positive comments from his friends, fans and others.

When you’re on that level of a spotlight, when you are standing as a comedian to do a job which others have already done many times before (don’t we all remember how irreverent Ricky Gervais has always been?), you don’t expect to be assaulted. Similarly, turning the prestigious academy event into a bar brawl is so unbelievably outlandish that many, including myself, thought this whole stunt was scripted.

So how did Rock manage to stay so graceful under pressure? And why is it not a subject of discussion a whole lot more? Yes, he is praised for his grace, but what enables a man in that position to face this with composure and gravitas?

The truth is it was a testament to Rock’s personality and his magnanimity. He has shared his experiences about being bullied on buses: it got so bad that his parents had to pull him out of high school. Anyone who is a stand-up comic knows the pain and the bravery you must endure with not just bullying but with failure and with criticism. Success is never sure to get to a point where Rock is right now, it's nothing short of a miracle, given that he is African-American. In Oscar’s 100-year history, Rock is among the only five people who have hosted the show. He is also known as one of the greatest African-American comedians. But after the spectacle at the Oscar's, he has shown that he’s got one of the greatest spirits in the industry.

He has been through several trials and tribulations in life, and this moment has unfortunately added to it. However, what must be remembered is how he chose to react. To hold your own dignity gracefully and confidently in the face of physical and emotional humiliation, Rock stood solid and didn’t really miss a beat. Maybe Smith, or those who bullied Rock when he was a child, have had troubles of their own which made them victimise Rock. But the person they victimised chose to break the cycle. Rock could have walked off in protest, posted angry statuses immediately or filed a complaint against Smith. But he did none of that. He smiled in his characteristic style. The show must go on, said his posture. And it did.

It is veterans like Rock, not Smith, who are the real backbone of a good society. Those who stand gracefully under fire, those who do not stoop to the level of those attacking them and those who choose to take the higher road.

Humanity is humane because of how people like Rock smile and say, without uttering the words, that how you choose to respond to a difficult situation is what your choice is – but how I choose to stand tall, while I’m being beaten, is mine.

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