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Will Smith’s slap distracted us from the real story

The Oscars night should, too, have been about the Williams sisters, their genius and how their problematic but remarkable father nurtured it

Venus and Serena Williams with their father, Richard, in Los Angeles, 1991. Photo: Paul Harris/Getty

I’m going to do something sacrilegious and diss Harry Potter.

Daniel Radcliffe said about the Will Smith/Chris Rock altercation: “I’m just so already dramatically bored of hearing people’s opinions”.

I’m even going to ignore the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s seeming empathy: “I feel, on reflection, both Will Smith and me having our wives attacked – at least I didn’t get up and slap anybody, which is good.”

And I’m trying to ignore OJ Simpson’s weigh-in: “Look, I understood the feeling. In my life, I’ve been through a lot of crap when I was raising two young kids and every comedian in the country had an OJ routine, and don’t think I wouldn’t want to bitch-slap a couple of them, but you got to accept that it’s human.”

“The Slap Heard Around The World” managed to relegate Ukraine in the headlines for a while. Even one of my relatives, the one I never hear from, sent me a shot of a group of white female fans of Chris Rock smiling enthusiastically at his sell-out show following his assault: My relative labelled it: “Karens 4 Chris”. The relative is in the Will Smith corner of “I’m defending my wife”.

That so-called spousal defence was an assault. It still is now. But not just on Chris Rock.

Let us call it what it is: The first post- BLM existential crisis: the very reverse of Black Lives Matter delivered by a black man.

Maybe above all a celebrity, those humans close to our minds and hearts and thoughts and opinions… people who do not even know us.

And we heed a middle-aged Fresh Prince who states that what he did was not indicative of the man he wanted to be.

Will Smith broke the sacred, the unspoken: The audience does not cross the stage unless invited to do so.

I’ve been involved in theatre most of my life and the reason that so many actors prefer acting to real life is because you, the audience, real people with real loves and hates, can’t get to them. It’s called acting behind The Fourth Wall.

Right now, stage folks are really frightened. Especially comedians. Where does this end?

There’s another thing, too, for me: something deeper.

My LA-area sister and brother-in-law, celebrating their 50th wedding anniversary on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, broke into their raucous celebration to contact me.

My brother-in-law is a Vietnam vet. He was a sniper. History has called that war, among other things, “The Black Man’s War” because it was the first time that African American men were fully engaged, free of the military’s official segregation. My brother-in-law was armed, unlike my late father in the second world war who had to have a weapon specially issued to him, even in a combat zone.

My brother-in-law is livid. In his day, on a platform like the Academy awards, you believe and you know that you’re not there just for and as you.

You are on this highest of entertainment platforms as the entire community. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe that’s not a cool thing. Maybe that’s just an old thing. But that’s how our parents raised our generation, and Will Smith outright violated that. Right in front of us and millions of others. So my brother-in-law is very sad. And also despairing. And wondering, too, how to go forward. Because that’s what this is all about for many African Americans right now. For all black people, for all people who value civilisation itself. What to do now?

And for the comedy community, this is a terrifying time. Will Smith gave a licence to commit assault if you take offence at what someone is saying.

Let me get down to the nub of it for me. It is not even about The Slap itself or its increasingly dire aftermath – not even the disgrace of the whole thing:

This was to be the Williams Sisters’ night.

There is not enough space in this column to talk about The Good, The Bad, The Ugly and The Epic of their father, Richard… the subject of the picture for which Will Smith won his Best Actor Oscar.

The sheer audacity of a black man back in the mid-90s breaking into an elite white sport is truly a story in itself. That he had two little daughters who quite literally changed the game for ever is the real miracle.

In Will Smith’s film, Venus and Serena are played by two lovely young actresses. In real life, Venus and Serena were not considered “lovely”.

They were muscular, hardscrabble black girls to many, who learned their tennis on ghetto courts.

Back in the day, Richard used to brag about them dodging bullets. Whether this was true or not, we were graced with the spectacle of a longlimbed, graceful black girl playing a total game and playing it aggressively. In beaded hair. A normal hairstyle in any black community, but not at Wimbledon and Roland Garros.

Women’s tennis had been superb, but it was not a sport in which it was implied that the players were men. Except when Venus and eventually Serena joined the tour. Their womanness, for a time, was denied them. Because they had muscles. And on the court, they took no prisoners.

They played in a world in which women did not get the same money as men. Venus fought this, and ended up taking home the same money as fellow champion Roger Federer at Wimbledon in 2007. Serena’s triumphs are many and legend, including winning the Australian Open in the early stages of pregnancy.

At one point during the Will Smith assault, Venus had her face in her hands. She and Serena had organised the picture. They are, in a way, the producers, the ones who would have been a part of the Best Picture throng on the stage if the film had also won that Oscar. This night should, too, have been about them; their genius, and about the remarkable and problematic father who nurtured it.

I think of the great Hattie McDaniel, Mammy in Gone With The Wind who had to sit in the back of a racially segregated Hollywood restaurant because she was not allowed to sit in the front.

When her name was called – the first person of colour to win, the first black person, she made that long walk to the podium. Took her Oscar.

And told the audience how proud she was. She said that, too, for her community.

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