‘The Slap’ and expressions of manhood

Sorry, but there is no excuse.

Not that that’s stopped some people from trying to find one. And yes, in case you hadn’t figured it out, we’re talking about the event that has crowded out Ukraine, the pandemic and gas prices as the top topic of public conversation. Meaning, of course, The Slap.

And here begins perhaps the most unnecessary recap you’ll ever read:

Sunday night during the Academy Awards telecast, presenter Chris Rock made a crack about actress Jada Pinkett Smith, whose scalp is shorn nearly bald. “ ‘GI Jane 2,’ can’t wait to see you,” he snarked, referencing a 1997 movie wherein Demi Moore shaved her head to play a Navy SEAL. In response, Smith’s husband, Will, mounted the stage, reared all the way back to West Philadelphia, and slapped Rock in the face. He returned to his seat bellowing, “Keep my wife’s name out your [expletive] mouth!”

The excuse-making began immediately after. As Smith later told it while accepting the Oscar for best actor, Denzel Washington counseled him as follows during the commercial break: “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.” Somewhere, the devil is likely consulting his lawyer about a defamation suit. Pestilence, famine and Ted Cruz, yes, but Satan had nothing to do with this.

One is also unpersuaded by Tiffany Haddish and others who have lauded Smith as a defender of Black womanhood. He himself tried to claim that mantle in an acceptance speech where he likened himself to Richard Williams, father of tennis goddesses Venus and Serena, whom he portrayed in the film, “King Richard.”

“I look like the crazy father,” he said. “But love will make you do crazy things.”

Finally, some have mentioned alopecia, the auto-immune disorder that caused Jada’s hair loss. It’s far from certain — and seems unlikely — that Rock knew about this, but the point is taken: One shouldn’t joke about people’s illnesses. But one shouldn’t get smacked if one does.

So no, no excuse. Will Smith undressed himself on that stage, this preacher from the gospel of positive thinking, can-do and — ahem — “will power,” revealing the insecurities beneath his facade.

The record will show that when Rock made the offending crack, Smith actually laughed. Then he saw his wife’s face go still and her eyes roll, and suddenly, he was on the spot. This was not about her distress, you understand, but about his manhood in response thereto. The average guy would rather stroll naked through the lion’s cage with raw steak strapped to his jiggly bits than see a woman he loves in pain and be helpless to do something about it.

Unfortunately, “something” often decodes as hitting. We men are good at hitting problems. It makes us feel manly. That’s why, from the Kremlin to Mar-a-Lago to the Academy Awards, there are few things more unpredictable — or dangerous — than a man who feels pressed to vindicate his manhood. The weaker the man, the greater the need and the vaster the collateral damage.

Will Smith’s collateral damage includes a tarnished night, a banged-up reputation and maybe a damaged career. But Rock declined to press charges, so at least he didn’t end the night in handcuffs as he easily could have. A day later, he finally apologized to Rock.

Maybe next time Smith sees his wife in distress, his first thought will be to comfort her.

That, after all, would be the manly thing to do.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.