Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
As a historian, I waited to write this because if I had not waited, I would have missed observations that only come with the passage of time. (Areas highlighted in Blue have hyperlinks to other pertinent information.)
In March of this year, when actor Will Smith walked on the stage at the 92nd Academy Awards and slapped comedian Chris Rock there was an absence of visible security. Even though there was security that addressed this spectacle, the viewing public never witnessed any security personnel rush to the stage to stop Smith or to even check to see if Rock was okay. During the broadcast, if Smith was ever restrained, the viewing audience never saw it; and he was not removed from the ceremony.
For several months after this slap, people speculated about why Smith got so angry over Rock’s joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett-Smith. The rumor mill went into overdrive about his marriage, his personal life, and whether he previously had a beef with Chris Rock. I have yet to hear, however, anyone with a large public following seriously speculate about his mental health.
Later on May 3rd, Isaiah Lee bounded on the Hollywood Bowl stage with a fake gun that concealed a knife, and tackled comedian Dave Chappelle. He admitted he was inspired by Will Smith. Lee was quickly grabbed, however, by Chappelle’s security team who promptly beat him up. They blackened his eye and broke his arm. He looked like he had been pummeled by Muhammad Ali when Ali was in his prime. Although Lee never physically harmed Chappelle, he has been charged with assault. Now here’s the spin…
After the incident, the first stories about Lee suggested he was mentally unstable and attacked Chappelle to bring attention to Lee’s grandmother who lost her home due to gentrification. Chappelle privately spoke with this young man, but the story about gentrification sounded fishy. Who the hell attacks a comedian for such a reason? In the weeks that followed, Lee (who identifies as Bisexual) explained that he was tired of and triggered by Chappelle’s offensive jokes about the LGBTQIA community.
I am aware that Chappelle has taken more than a few comedic shots at LGBTQIA people, particularly members of the Transgender community that he obviously does not know have histories as long as humans have been in existence. When he argued that the public cares more about the LGBTQIA community’s feelings than about the sanctity of Black lives, he conveniently forgot that there are Black LGBTQIA people too. Black transgender women bear the brunt of other people’s misunderstanding, misinformation, violence, sexism, and often racism from many white LGBTQIA. Additionally, they face transphobia and violence from many Black folks.
In a conversation with scholar Marc Lamont Hill, Black transgender activist and writer Hope Giselle pointed out that Chappelle might not have meant any harm but his words negatively affected Black Transgender women in particular, and other Black LGBTQIA people in general, precisely because his words granted license to people who already want any excuse to harm them. She pointed out that while white transgender individuals do experience transphobia and discrimination, they still enjoy white privileges that Black and Brown transgender women do not. But, I digress.
The media story of Isaiah Lee began with him described as a potentially mentally unstable young Black man angry over what happened to his Grandmother’s home. Then the story was clarified. He is a young Black Bisexual man fed up with Chappelle’s jokes about LGBTQIA people. Why were there two such drastically different stories? Who knows? Yet, here’s why we should care.
Will Smith has had thousands of his fans look for every excuse to explain his virulent behavior because they like him and enjoy his films. The problem is that Smith could also be mentally unstable; and that slap he gave Rock could have been a lot worse. I can only imagine what might have happened if Rock had hit Smith back.
Even though Isaiah Lee had a knife and Will Smith had only his hands, they both did practically the same thing—they went on a stage with the intent of harming comedians whose commentary/jokes they found offensive. Yet, we looked at both of these scenarios and both of these men quite differently. Smith’s celebrity shielded him from immediately being labeled “crazy”, while Lee’s status as a private citizen—and a bisexual one at that—guaranteed that he would be criminally charged and seen as mentally unbalanced. We need to think hard and long about this because none of these unfortunate incidents (or the manner in which we view them) help Will Smith or Isaiah Lee or the public.
I wrote this piece to emphasize that erratic and violent behavior conducted in public are often symptoms of desperation that neither celebrity nor anonymity can shield anyone from. Importantly, we, the public, can be convinced that an individual’s momentary lapse in good judgement is just temporary depending on who has the lapse and how the story is covered.—And that is dangerous because it grants some people an excuse to act on their anger in inappropriate and volatile ways while permanently condemning others for the exact same behavior. So…
when you read about or witness odd and/or disappointing and/or strange behavior, take a deep breath and pause and think about it because we have always lived in a world where information needs to be processed over days, but media and social media suggest you can digest it in a few minutes. Yet, you cannot. Peace.
Copyright © by Leslye Joy Allen. All Rights Reserved.
This blog was written by Leslye Joy Allen and is protected by U. S. Copyright Law and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives-4.0 International License. Any partial or total reference to this or any blog authored by Leslye Joy Allen, or any total or partial excerpt of this or any blog by Leslye Joy Allen must contain a direct reference to this hyperlink: https://leslyejoyallen.com with Leslye Joy Allen clearly stated as the author. All Rights Reserved.
Sidebar: Deconstructing Will Smith: Race, Masculinity and Global Stardom by Dr. Willie Tolliver is an exceptional (and prescient) analysis of Smith’s career that was published in January of 2022.