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Smith’s slap steals the show as CODA wins Best Picture at 94th Oscars

<h6>“<strong>OSCAR STATUETTE</strong>” by Martin Vorel / <a href="http://" target="_self"><strong>CC0 1.0</strong></a></h6>
OSCAR STATUETTE” by Martin Vorel / CC0 1.0

Although there were no surprises in the major categories at the 94th Oscars on Sunday night, there was still plenty to keep viewers glued to the screen.

Whether it was the Academy’s controversial “In Memoriam” segment, Amy Schumer’s heavily criticized quip about violence against marginalized groups in Ukraine, or Will Smith’s on-stage spat with comedian Chris Rock, the ceremony’s various antics drew more attention than the awards or films themselves.

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The latter of these fiascos was perhaps the most jaw-dropping. Before presenting the award for Best Documentary Feature, Chris Rock was poking fun at members of the audience, and delivered a joke about Jada Pinkett-Smith’s hair loss, the distress of which she has spoken about publicly. After briefly laughing, her husband Will Smith made a beeline for Rock on-stage and delivered an almost cartoon-like slap to Rock’s face, an action so shocking that many viewers believed it was staged.

It soon became clear this was no joke for the “King Richard” star. After the slap, Smith returned to his seat, where he yelled obscenities at Rock. The audio was cut out for about 15 seconds on the ABC broadcast in the United States. Rock then continued with the presentation of the award. Later in the night, when Smith was awarded Best Actor in a Leading Role for his performance in “King Richard,” he made clear his desire to protect his family, and apologized to the Academy and the other nominees for his actions (but not Rock in particular). Smith has since issued an apology to Rock.

Meanwhile, had there been no celebrity kerfuffle, “CODA’s” victory in the Best Picture category would have, no doubt, been the biggest headline from the night. The film, which chronicles the coming-of-age story of the only hearing girl in a Deaf family, won in all three categories in which it was nominated (including Best Supporting Actor and Best Adapted Screenplay). Although some have praised the movie for its representation, members of the Deaf community have raised concerns over the movie being centered around the experience of a hearing person, as well as the director’s hesitancy to cast Deaf actors. This hesitancy was only overcome when Marlee Matlin, the actress who became the first Deaf Oscar recipient in 1986, threatened to quit the film. 

There is no doubt the film leaves much to be desired in the realm of representation, but it is also formulaic in its plot, reading like a rather bland coming-of-age story with the veneer of representation fairly haphazardly plastered on top. In a year without a true standout film though, it’s one of the least objectionable choices on the list (which included dumpster fires like “Don’t Look Up” and “Nightmare Alley”). It makes for an average, if not slightly below-average, Best Picture winner.

Even with “CODA’s” problems, there are bigger fish to fry as far as award misses go. For example, Best Animated Feature was all but ensured for Disney’s “Encanto,” despite its derivative plot scaffolded by the threadbare theme of not fitting in (although I must say I am a big fan of the soundtrack). In a bizarre — and, in my opinion, very disrespectful — move, the Academy selected three actresses known for their roles as Disney princesses to present the award, a (this time proverbial) slap in the face to the non-Disney nominees.

In particular, the Danish film “Flee,” which was nominated in two other categories, was far and away the best animated film nominated, and certainly deserved to win in this category. The film delicately explores the experiences of a gay Afghan refugee, telling the story of how he made his way to his current home in Europe, and the trauma he suffers as a result of his past and current tribulations. Aside from being extremely adept in exploring its themes of intersectionality and loss, it is also technically stunning, with a hand-drawn style that remains novel throughout its runtime. Alas, Best Animated Feature is an award that, since its inception in 2001, has only been given out to children’s movies (some of which do tackle important themes, like “Up,” “Inside Out,” and “Soul”), meaning that “Flee” likely had no shot despite its brilliance.

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Thankfully, I didn’t notice as many glaring misses in the other categories; the actors who received awards were all deserving, and my favorite film nominated, “Dune,” dominated the technical categories, bringing home a well-deserved, ceremony-leading six awards. That being said, I would like to have seen “The Worst Person in the World” triumph over “Drive My Car” in the International Feature category. K.D. Dávila ’11 was similarly worthy in the Live Action Short category, with her film “Please Hold” — which provides a novel take on Kafka’s “The Trial” through the lens of racialized policing and incarceration — losing out to Riz Ahmed’s “The Long Goodbye.”

The most important thing though, is that some of the worst films nominated didn’t bring home any awards. Despite its occasional heartfelt sentiment and entertainment value, Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” — a technically inept and snobby allegory for climate change inaction — is a piece of hot garbage and lost in all four categories for which it was nominated. Meanwhile, “Licorice Pizza” — Paul Thomas Anderson’s technically sound but unsettlingly saccharine and boring depiction of a relationship between a 28 year-old and 15 year-old — lost in all three categories for which it was nominated, which, in my opinion, was a rare triumph for the Academy. 

In many ways, the true triumphs of the night belong to the victors, especially those who used their speeches to bring attention to important issues, even though earnest discussion of the invasion of Ukraine was startlingly sparse.

Ahmir Khalib Thompson (also known as Questlove) — whose documentary “Summer of Soul” (...Or When the Revolution Could not be Televised) won Best Documentary Feature — spoke passionately about the continued struggles of marginalized people worldwide. Additionally, Jessica Chastain, who won Best Actress for her role in “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” used her speech as an opportunity to advocate for LGBTQ+ rights. Most notably, Ariana DeBose, the first openly queer woman of color to be awarded an Oscar when she won Best Supporting Actress for her role in “West Side Story,” used her speech as an opportunity to discuss the importance of representation in film.

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“So, to anybody who has ever questioned your identity… or [if] you find yourself living in the gray spaces,” she said, “I promise you this: There is indeed a place for us.”  

DeBose, Thompson, Chastain, and other artists made sure to uplift those whose stories are not often told, which in many ways, is one of the main reasons we celebrate film. However, the ceremony may have ultimately left a sour taste in viewers’ mouths, as much of the coverage has been dominated by Smith’s slap and the slew of other troubling moments.

Wilson Conn is a co-head editor for the Sports section at the ‘Prince’ who typically covers football, basketball, and breaking news. He is also a senior writer for the Podcast section. He can be reached at wconn@princeton.edu or on Twitter at @wilson_conn.

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