Chris Rock Unleashed a Year’s Worth of Hurt at Will Smith
Photo: Kirill Bichutsky/Netflix

Chris Rock Unleashed a Year’s Worth of Hurt at Will Smith

The comedian has claimed he’s no victim, but his latest Netflix special begs to differ

In order to get revenge for Will Smith’s infamous slap at the Oscars last year, Chris Rock first turned to a slave master. Taking the stage in Baltimore this past Saturday, the comedian recalled watching Will star in the slave film Emancipation for a darkly humorous form of vicarious vengeance. “I have rooted for Will Smith my whole life,” Rock said to the audience. “And now I watch Emancipation just to see him get whooped.”

The quip was just one part Selective Outrage, a live-aired Netflix special (a first for the streaming platform) that sees him exact a more thorough reprisal for the actor’s assault, one Rock addresses extensively for the first time publicly. For the final part of the show, Rock lets loose all the anger he’d pent up since the attack. This isn’t as pristinely controlled as his typical fare. He curses more passionately, and more frequently. When he messes up a climactic joke, he admits to it. There’s genuine pathos here, and at certain moments, you almost get the sense that telling jokes was secondary to exorcizing demons from that awards show night, which saw Will both accept an Oscar and perform “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” at an afterparty. This was personal. It had to be. In a genre built on roasting and comebacks and all-around verbal sparring, Selective Outrage was more than a comedy special; it was a battleground for the get back—a chance for Chris Rock to strike back at Will on his own terms. But did the comedy legend soar or did he s(t)ink?

Rock preceded his assault on Will with lighter material that saw the showman in his typical element. Using repetition, a knack for building context, and his general ability to ride the momentum of an audience, Rock piled up his typically colorful observations on culture with a lot of success, even if parts of his routine felt dated. Taking aim at Meghan Markle, Rock lambasted the Duchess for being unable to foresee racism in the Royal Family, using the joke as a segue to an explanation for why the Kardashians are the best in-laws a Black person could ask for. Using his sharp sociological lens, Rock later noted how a cursory look at the mid-day haps in a community can reveal much about its socioeconomic makeup.

“If you in any neighborhood in America, at 12:15 in the afternoon, on a Wednesday, and you see women with sweatpants on, coming out the gym, pushing babies, riding bikes… chances are, you in a nice neighborhood,” he noted. “If you in any neighborhood in America, at 12:15 in the afternoon, on a Wednesday, and you see men in sweatpants, smoking cigarettes, hanging with their boys… then YOU are in DANGER.”

While his funniest moments land, Rock drops some generic barbs about social media, and some of his “woke” criticisms felt clumsy. When he speaks about the world’s growing attachment to IG, he sounds like someone who just discovered Facebook last week. He got some laughs, but any rant that begins with the phrase “woke trap” has to get docked a few points. These barbs hint at a man who’s a little out of touch with some things, but also isn’t all that interested in making contact. It’s not as cutting-edge as his specials from the ’90s, but it mostly hits—although none harder than his jabs at Will and his wife. Unloading more venom than we’re accustomed to seeing from Rock, he showed even less mercy than the King Richard star did when he approached him on the Oscars stage nearly a year ago.

Chris Rock insists he’s not a victim, but his latest special makes it clear that he was.

First, he addressed the slap itself. Yes, it hurt, but no, he said, he isn’t a victim. “I took that hit like Pacquiao,” Rock quipped. Referencing the differences in the types of roles they play in movies, he noted their disparity in size, hilariously dismissing the notion that this could be a fair fight. “Will Smith played Muhammad Ali, in a movie. You think I auditioned for that part?” Rock said. “I played Pookie in New Jack City.”

From there, he detailed the alleged origin of his feud with Will and Jada Pinkett-Smith, recalling a time he responded to Jada allegedly telling him to drop out of hosting the 2016 Oscars. She herself boycotted after Will wasn’t nominated for his leading role in Concussion, and after Rock responded by joking about her at the event, Will and Jada apparently felt a way—at least, according to Rock.

Regardless of who started what, Rock used the last portion of his special to finish the saga, poking fun at Smith’s perceived insecurities to paint a portrait of a little man who got his feelings hurt. He mentioned Jada’s notorious “entanglement” with August Alsina, and the interview they had about it on her own show, a peculiar happening Rock couldn’t help himself from speaking on. “Everybody in here been cheated on,” he began. “None of us have ever been interviewed by the person that cheated on us on television.”

Will and Jada have spoken about their embrace of ethical non-monogamy, so it’s unclear whether any actual cheating went down. But this is comedy, and the specifics don’t matter as much as the perception. Will’s teary eyed stare on Red Table Talk was all the ammunition Rock needed to reaffirm a conclusion many had already come to about the true motive for the slap heard ’round the world. “She hurt him way more than he hurt me,” Rock continued.

Rock might have a point there, but it’s clear he took some damage, too. He insists he’s not a victim, but his latest special makes it clear that he was. In this final portion of the show, his jokes spill out as soul-baring, searing bursts of confusion and righteous indignation. In just 10 minutes, Rock let loose a year’s worth of hurt at the Fresh Prince, with his tonal inflections and an emphatic mic drop underscoring a type of trauma that lasts a lot longer than an award show.

You feel his dormant pain, especially when he offers an explanation for his inaction against Will. Closing things out, he explained that his decision not to physically retaliate against Will came down to etiquette bestowed by the Rock family: Don’t fight in front of White people. Sure, it’s a punchline with a stench of respectability politics, but as an insult, it’s potent; he’s implying Will wasn’t raised right. There’s valid criticism to be made here about pandering to the white gaze, but it's not enough to derail Rock's offensive, or the special as a whole. Besides, this is a justification he shouldn’t have had to give in the first place. When he was attacked, he was a person doing the job he was paid to do, and he carried on like a professional. This past Saturday—as everyone watched—was the perfect moment for a response.

At the time he was struck, Rock was further beat down by quips about why he didn’t hit back. He took his lumps, and his counterstrikes weren't always pretty. But fighting in his own arena after 12 months of near silence on the matter, he got the knockout he’d been waiting for.

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