Notebook 2022: The slap heard (and seen) around the world

DISCUSSION: Was it real? Or was it staged? It turned out very real. Will Smith slapped Chris Rock at the 2022 Academy Awards after a joke the comedian told about his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, resonated in the entertainment industry and across the country, leading to Smith being banned from the Oscars for a decade.

The event touched on a lot of talk about race, celebrity, and – for several days of intense discussion – authenticity. Smith apologized and eventually released an apology video as well.

But even months later, the moment of the event and the unexpected sadness that hung over the Oscars that evening remains in focus. Here, the AP photographer who captured the moment and the AP entertainment writer who narrated the night talk about their experiences.


AP photographer CHRIS PIZZELLO, who captured the iconic image and has followed the Oscars since the 1990s:

Looking back, the main feeling I have is relaxation. There I am, on top of the Dolby Theatre, far up, far away. And for slightly wider shots, I have gear with a 600mm lens and a 200 to 400mm lens. Luckily, I was at 600 when Chris Rock was there. Then all of a sudden it looked like someone was stepping onto the stage. I saw someone’s fuzzy head approaching him. And I was just working on instinct. And suddenly, something happened. It was really loud when the hand slammed into Chris Rock’s microphone. And as soon as that happened, all eight or nine photographers in the sound booth had the same reaction: “Oh my God, do I get it?”

If you look at the video, it happened really fast. And he played Muhammad Ali in a movie, so he has a good middle right. And when that happened, my first feeling was the fear that I had missed it. Because it happened so fast. It was probably the longest 30 seconds of my life. I was waiting for my editor, Paula Muñoz, with whom I was with. I have a headset and I talk to him in real time because he sees my pictures. Nothing for about 30 seconds. Then all of a sudden I heard Paula say, “Oh, you got it.”

I didn’t hit my face, but it happened so fast you almost had to see it beforehand. But still probably a better picture, responding to being shot. I think everyone is a little late. But to put the hand in your face, you need to be able to predict the future. So yes, it was brutal. But when I look back. I feel relieved that I got a decent look out of this.

The Oscars are something I’m always extremely alert to because big, unpredictable things happen. Other unexpected things happened as well. And luckily I have them all. I haven’t failed yet. The first was when Jennifer Lawrence tripped and fell while taking the stage. Remember when Warren Beatty explained that this is “La La Land” and it really is “Moonlight”? I didn’t think it could get any crazier than this. But this flap is the top of it all. And that’s why you need to be extremely alert. Every year. I got out of photojournalism and I’m glad I got that photojournalism training. Because sometimes you have to trust your instincts. I think it helps me in situations like this.


JAKE COYLE, AP entertainment writer:

I was in the backstage, in the press room of the Oscar Awards, where the winners later returned and there were 100 journalists from all over the world. Icy atmosphere. And I think there was a lot going on at those Oscars in particular because it was the first real ceremony after the first two years of the pandemic. The film industry had experienced such ups and downs and was really struggling to survive. So Hollywood really wanted to put on its best show.

Things were going pretty well. But when that happened, it was as if the world’s largest balloon had burst and all the festivities had gone. And no one knew right away what exactly happened. Frankly, at first, it looked like a fiction, it was a scene being played out, I guess partly because of how dramatically Smith progressed through the scene and hit the Rock. We’re used to this kind of over-dramatized reaction to things at an awards show. And it really felt that way because he was so out of left field that no one could take him for what he was. It’s as if you were in a “Manchurian Candidate” moment – as if he had received a signal in his brain and somehow acted on it.

Part of it was the difficulty of knowing what emphasis to give. It was clearly the hot topic of the night, but we’re very prepared for any milestones that could happen during an Academy Awards broadcast. You almost have to go from watching an awards show to reporting on a crime scene. It’s a strange juxtaposition that’s hard to reconcile in a story that should cover all that happened during those 3 1/2 hours. I think that’s what I struggled the most that night – how to frame it properly.

Chris Rock hasn’t really said anything about it yet. He has his stand-up, but his special event will probably be when he finally fully expresses his thoughts on the matter. Will Smith has a new movie, which is a new test of how people feel about him. I think when he hit Chris Rock, he dealt a blow to the movie industry. The comeback story that Hollywood was hoping to tell the world was somehow captured. Something new has been added to all the uncertainty and instability that seems to exist in the movie business right now.


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