After nearly 30 years as one of the most recognizable stars in Hollywood, Will Smith finally won the Academy Award for Best Actor. The former Fresh Prince of Bel-Air picked up the prize during Sunday’s 94th Academy Awards for his performance as Richard Williams, father to tennis superstars Venus and Serena Williams, in the biopic King Richard — which is also nominated for Best Picture.
But the win was shaded by a shocking moment earlier in the night. After Best Documentary presenter Chris Rock cracked a joke at the expense of Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith took to the stage and slapped the comedian across the face. The telecast cut to silence after the altercation, as Smith continued to curse out Rock.
As international broadcasts of the ceremony confirmed, Smith told Rock to “keep my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!”
Rock formerly hosted the Oscars in 2016, where he made a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s boycott of the Oscars, essentially saying that she wasn’t invited anyway. Meanwhile, Pinkett-Smith’s shaved head is due in part to her ongoing struggle with Alopecia — a condition that causes hair loss — which she has spoken about publicly in the past.
According to Smith, Denzel Washington pulled him aside after the incident and told him that “at your highest moment, be careful that’s when the devil comes for you.”
Smith attempted to acknowledge the situation during his acceptance speech for the award.
“Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family,” he said, slowly succumbing to tears. “In this time in my life, in this moment, I am overwhelmed by what God is calling on me to do and be in this world. […] I am being called on in my life to love people. And to protect people. And to be a river to my people. I know to do what we do you gotta be able to take abuse. You gotta let people talk crazy about you. You gotta have people disrespecting you. You gotta smile and pretend that’s OK.”
Smith went on to formally address the incident. “I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to all the nominees. This is a beautiful moment. I am not crying for winning an award. It’s not about winning, it’s about being able to shine a light on all of the people.” He continued by thanking Venus and Serena Williams, and much of the cast and crew of King Richard.
King Richard marks the third time Smith has been nominated for the award. Like the previous two times — 2001’s Ali and 2006’s The Pursuit of Happyness — it’s for the lead role in a biographical drama.
In this year’s Oscars, Smith beat out fellow nominees Andrew Garfield (tick, tick…BOOM!), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Power of the Dog), Javier Bardem (Being the Ricardos), and Denzel Washington (The Tragedy of Macbeth).
King Richard is currently available to stream on HBO Max.
Update (March 29): Will Smith has used an Instagram post to offer a full apology to Chris Rock for the slap, calling his behaviour “unacceptable and inexcusable.” He also apologized to the Academy, viewers and attendees, the producers of the Oscars, the Williams family, and the cast and crew of King Richard.
“I would like to publicly apologize to you, Chris,” Smith 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.”
You can read Smith’s full apology in the Instagram post below.