It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?

March 27, 2022 was Will Smith’s big night. After three decades transitioning from family-friendly rapper, to comically cool sitcom star, to action-packed Summer blockbuster sure-bet, he was finally poised to be recognized as the brilliant thespian he is at the core of it all. And he was. 

Smith was awarded the Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role for King Richard, the sports biopic detailing the grit, determination, and protection of a father with a vision of greatness for his children. 

But something….else happened first. 

Everyone likely recalls their initial reaction to what has now been simply boiled down to “The Slap;” the now-infamous moment that the A-list actor reacted violently to an ill-timed joke from presenter Chris Rock, aimed at his wife Jada. The shock, the confusion, the nervous laughter melting into hand-over-mouth incredulity setting in – “Wait, is this a skit? Wait…are they about to fight?” 

After the tense moment passed and producers hurried to commercial break, Smith was instantly surrounded by concerned peers in the auditorium. An embrace from Tyler Perry. Counsel from Denzel Washington. A hug from Bradley Cooper. The actor carried on the night, eventually tearfully accepting his honor and later attending the Vanity Fair afterparty with his trophy and his family in tow, celebrating the career milestone seemingly without missing a beat. 

It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?
BEVERLY HILLS, CALIFORNIA – MARCH 27: (L-R) Jada Pinkett Smith, Willow Smith, Will Smith, Jaden Smith and Trey Smith attend the 2022 Vanity Fair Oscar Party hosted by Radhika Jones at Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts on March 27, 2022 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Lionel Hahn/Getty Images)

Though the evening ended on a high note, the controversy for Smith had just begun. For his part, he swiftly addressed the fresh scar on his image and instantly began doing the work to make amends and bounce back. By the end of July ‘22, Smith had resigned from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences after being banned from attending the Oscars for the next decade. He had also issued a total of three public apologies; once during his acceptance speech, next via Instagram the day immediately following, and lastly, via a video posted to his popular YouTube channel, which served as the most thorough. 

“There is no part of me that thinks that was the right way to behave in that moment,” he said during his prerecorded mea culpa. “If you hang on, I promise we’ll be able to be friends again.”

A cacophony of criticism swirled around Smith in the months immediately following his physical altercation with Rock, begging the question of just how many friends he had left, both in the industry and among film fans. Comedians came forth, claiming they were “traumatized” by witnessing the fray while Hollywood insiders and actors from every list level publicly shared their two cents on the matter. Podcast hosts debated the ins and outs of the incident (and who was “truly” at fault for it), and the moment remained a top segment fodder for 24-hour news channels, late-night TV, and daytime talk shows throughout the Spring and Summer. Social commenters expressed deep disappointment, saying they’d never look at Smith the same way again. His apologies were picked apart, analyzed, and evaluated – was any of it enough to make up for what he had done?

Meanwhile, a lesser-highlighted but very large sector of the population was already over it by the end of the week.

It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?
MEXICO CITY, MEXICO – JUNE 1: Will Smith during the red carpet for the movie ‘Bad Boys: Ride or Die’ at Cinepolis Parque Toreo on June 1, 2024 in Naucalpan de Juarez, Mexico. (Photo by Angel Delgado/Getty Images)

Since the initial Slap frenzy, the disgust and discussion about who was right, who was wrong, and how Smith should be “disciplined” has sharply subsided to near-nothing. After the chatter and cries of disappointment died down, and particularly after Rock addressed it head-on during his Ego Death comedy tour and on his 2023 live Netflix special, the subject became tiring for many vocal social users. The fallout of the incident felt unnecessarily drawn out, with some even becoming openly suspicious of the reasoning behind some outlets, platforms, and fellow movie fans repeatedly bringing up Smith’s transgression months and years after its occurrence. For the average audience member, the time to be friends with Smith again, or at least to let bygones be, came almost instantly. 

Now, with the hotly-anticipated release of Bad Boys: Ride or Die upon us, major industry publications are dusting off expired outrage in their box office projection headlines, posing the question of if audiences have “soured on Smith” or if they’re ready to “forgive” the actor’s singular action two years ago to “jumpstart his comeback.” 

But where exactly is he supposed to be returning from? 

Yes, Smith has laid considerably low from the traditional Hollywood scene for an A-lister of his status over the last two years. He hasn’t been spotted on any of the re-emerging post-COVID carpets he was a staple on before, and starred in any major theatrical releases. But he’s been far from absent from the public eye. 

His December 2022 film, the Antoine Fuqua-directed historical thriller Emancipation – though (unsurprisingly) snubbed by mainstream prestige ceremonies – earned him an NAACP Image Award. He performed alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff for the Grammy Salute to Hip-Hop’s 50th Anniversary in 2023. He popped out at Coachella alongside J. Balvin early this Spring. His YouTube channel only slowed in uploads by a small margin and holds on strong to 9.7 million subscribers. He is incredibly active on social media, where his support is astronomical, currently sitting at 74.3 million followers on TikTok and another 68 million on Instagram. 

It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?
INDIO, CALIFORNIA – APRIL 14: (FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Will Smith performs at the Coachella Stage during the 2024 Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival at Empire Polo Club on April 14, 2024 in Indio, California. (Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images for Coachella)

Millions of fans still flood the comment section of each of his posts across the digital landscape with fire emojis, praise, and pleas to see him in a big film again soon. Both Will Smith and Martin Lawrence’s keen eyes for content and willingness to collaborate with internet creatives and comedians have made Bad Boys 4 a top trending topic on social. Depending on what platform you view the commentary from, there is a stark difference in audience reactions across demographics. 

Consider the Bad Boys: Ride or Die BTS clip Smith originally posted to his Instagram and TikTok on June 4, showcasing the process of catching a first-person-shooter-style POV shot for the film’s climax. The clip was soon reposted to social outlets like Cinema Encyclopedia and Complex, to vastly different reactions.

It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?
It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?

Despite what a handful of performatively disgruntled social users will post and the framework the mainstream news cycle will use to punch up their story angles, The Slap has been of little consequence to most Will Smith fans and many fans of the Bad Boys franchise from the beginning. It doesn’t appear that the incident – shocking, disappointing, and unfortunate as it may have been – is impacting moviegoers’ weekend plans to head to the cinema to catch the familiar banter of Marcus Burnett and Mike Lowry as they get into a new set of explosive, high-stakes hijinks on the streets of Miami. 

It’s also possible that enough time has passed that a large number of those who were personally disturbed by the incident in real-time are ready to move on and see Smith do what he does best: deliver a Summer blockbuster. 

Besides, in the years following the run-in between Smith and Rock, we’ve witnessed much worse behavior from some of our beloved cultural icons. There’s no grounds for comparison or need for what-about-ism, but it’s not difficult for audiences to become a bit jaded on the ad-nauseam discussion about an ill-handled public dispute between celebs that took place two years ago when there is currently so much else going on in the world. 

Early reviews of Bad Boys: Ride or Die have been overwhelmingly positive, with many – including this editor – toeing the idea that this may be the best entry in the franchise yet. The film is projected to open between $40 million and $50 million this weekend, hopefully kicking off a much-needed spike in dismal summer movie box office numbers, which currently lie in an unprecedented slump. 

It’s Been Two Years. Can We Let Go Of “The Slap” Now?

Even if the film somehow doesn’t manage to live up to heavy expectations to carry the post-strike movie industry on its back, lackluster numbers would likely say less about what audiences think about Smith (he’s not the only star of the film, after all) than it would about producers’ inability to draw post-pandemic audiences out of the comfort of their homes. But that’s likely not how Monday morning’s stories would be framed. 

With the success of the fourth installment of this franchise film riding on its nostalgia, star power, and the undeniable chemistry between Smith and Lawrence, and social media demonstrating that they’re clamoring for all three, it’s safe to say that audiences are more than prepared to let go of the outrage. It may be time for the Hollywood media machine to do the same.

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