After Rock cracked a joke about Jada, Will smacked him across the face in what was NOT a bit -- he later apologized and explained he was being "a fierce defender of his family" like his "King Richard" character.
Will was positioned right up front by the stage, due to his Best Actor nomination for "King Richard." After Chris made a joke at Jada's expense about her short haircut, quipping that he couldn't wait until "G.I. Jane 2" came out, things got very real very fast.
Jada has been open publicly about her struggles with alopecia, a condition that affects her hair. Either Chris was unaware of this, or chose to ignore it for the sake of his joke. Whatever happened there, Will was not going to take it sitting down.
Instead, he jumped to his feet, walked up to the stage and literally smacked Chris across his face on live television. It was a shocking moment that got only more confusing for American audiences as the censors tried to prepare for the worst.
For viewers in the States, the audio cut out almost immediately, and even the video froze as the cameras were on Will. When movement came back, Will could very clearly be seen saying, "Keep my wife's name out of your f------ mouth."
It's possible that he was also still harboring some frustration over another joke Chris cracked back in 2016 at the Oscars. After Jada boycotted the ceremony, Rock quipped, "Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited."
Will would later put some context to his actions, without attempting to defend them, when he took the stage to accept the Oscar for Best Lead Actor for his work in "King Richard." In fact, it was in part because of the role he took on in that film that he reacted the way he did, per his own words.
In the immediate aftermath of the incident, it didn't take long for footage to start leaking online from Australia and Japan, among others, where the exchange wasn't censored at all. Watching this footage is extremely uncomfortable, and makes it clear it was unscripted, unexpected and Will's anger was very, very real.
After Will smacked Chris across the face, and the audio cut out for Americans, Chris told the stunned audience, "Will Smith just smacked the s--- out of me." He was clearly going to try to carry on, but Will wasn't done.
He screamed up at the stage, "Keep my wife's name out of your f------ mouth." At this point, it was clear that Chris was distressed and a little overwhelmed both by what was happening, and what to do about it.
"Wow, dude," he shot back. "It was a 'G.I. Jane' joke." But Will was adamant, repeating his demand."
"I'm going to, okay?" Chris assured him, before insisting the show had to carry on. He then proceeded to announce the winner for Documentary Feature. It was a big moment for Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson as “Summer of Soul (...Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised)," but his moment was completely overshadowed.
After the break, Sean Combs was the next person on stage, and he quickly mentioned the incident, telling Will (and Chris) that they're all "going to solve that like family at the Gold Party, okay?" Then he, too, moved on with the show.
According to The Hollywood Reporter's Scott Feinberg, Will was comforted by friends Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry during the commercial break, with Feinberg saying they were motioning for him to brush off Chris' comments. Will was seen laughing at Sean's comments when the show returned. Photos also show Bradley Cooper, with his tuxedo jacket off, embracing and comforting Will.
By the time the show got to his award category, some time had passed and Will had time to process what happened and his own role in it. There was no way to not address it in the same room where it just went down, so he didn't shy away from it during his acceptance speech.
Instead, the actor recalled his Oscar-winning role as Richard Williams, the fiercely-loving father of Venus and Serena Williams. "Richard Williams was a fierce defender of his family. In this time in my life, in this moment I am overwhelmed at what God is calling on me to do and be in this world," he told the audience.
"Making this film, I got to protect Aunjanue Ellis, who is one of the most strongest, most delicate people I've ever met. I got to protect Saniyya and Demi, the two actresses who played Venus and Serena."
"I'm being called on in my life to love people. And to protect people. And to be a river to my people," he continued. "I know to do what we do you gotta be able to talk abuse, you gotta be able to have people talk crazy about you. In this business, you gotta be able to have people disrespecting you and you gotta smile and pretend like that's okay."
He then shared the words that Denzel had told him during the break, "At your highest moment, be careful. That's when the devil comes for you."
"It's like, I wanna to be a vessel for love. I want to say thank you to Venus and Serena and the entire Williams family for entrusting me with your story. That's what I want to do," Will said. "I want to be an ambassador of that kind of love, care and concern."
"I want to apologize to [the] Academy. I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees," he continued. "This is a beautiful moment and I'm not crying for winning an award; it's not about winning an award for me. It's about being able to shine light on all of the people [in the cast and crew] ... Art imitates life, I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things."
He then closed by saying, "I hope the academy invites me back."
From the moment it happened, the slap seen 'round the world immediately dominated all of the discussion on Twitter, getting the phrase "WHAT JUST HAPPENED" trending at number one within minutes of the slap.
There were even more reactions after Will's acceptance speech, including messages of support from his and Jada's children, Jaden and Willow.
For the rest of his career, Will Smith’s Oscar win will be associated with this moment. That he wasn’t escorted out by security, is a reminder of two America’s. That if you are rich & famous, rules are different. That he sat back in his seat proves that Will also knows that…
Never been a Chris Rock fan, but this personal assault on national TV by Will Smith is totally wrong. He really stun Chris, physically and psychologically. The guy didn't know what literally hit him. My heart goes out to Chris. That should've NEVER happened. 😱 https://t.co/kO4NTR7u4I
I don't care if his wife suffers from alopecia or not. He laughed at the joke himself. The fact that there are people defending him is actually outrageous. Chris Rock got the whole room laughing, Will Smith got the whole room cringing. #Oscarpic.twitter.com/RkqMj9dHEY
Will Smith was wrong. Full stop. You can protect your wife against words without physically attacking a comedian. The long walk it took to get to the stage should have woken him up. Assaulting people is never ever the fix. Heartbroken that he polluted his win for eternity.