David Oyelowo says it would be 'tragic' if Will Smith Oscars slap led to inclusion and diversity 'backslide' in Hollywood

David Oyelowo worries that Will Smith slapping Chris Rock at the Oscars "will have a negative effect on the ongoing push for inclusion" in Hollywood.

The Selma actor wrote a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter on the "unfortunate" and "dramatic incident in which public opinion, politics and race collide."

While he, like many others, is "still processing" what happened, "attending the Oscars over the last few years have been steeped in unexpected drama." He pointed to the 2015 Oscars when the Ava DuVernay-directed film Selma about the civil rights movement, in which he played Martin Luther King Jr., was largely snubbed by the Academy, leading to the original #OscarsSoWhite debate. In 2017, his reaction went viral when La La Land was incorrectly announced as Best Picture when Moonlight — a film about a Black man grappling with his identity and sexuality with an all-Black cast — actually won. However, "Nothing could have prepared me for what was to come" in 2022.

"The moment I slowly realized the nature of what had just occurred on the stage at the Dolby Theater, I was confronted by the same rising anxiety all Black people feel when the face that flashes up on the news after a crime is reported, is a Black one," Oyelowo wrote. "You find yourself thinking, 'What does this mean for us?' 'What does that mean for me?'"

Before he had time to start processing Smith's shocking outburst — on a historic night for the Oscars, as it was helmed by an all-Black production team and two of the three female hosts were Black women — he was "immediately confronted by that which I feared" at an Oscars after-party. There, an "older white gentleman sidled up to me with relish in his demeanor" and said to him that Smith, who went on to win for Best Actor, "'should have been dragged right out of there.'

Oyelowo wrote, "You may well agree with that sentiment, but it’s not what he said, it’s the way he said it. I know that relish. I know that demeanor, and it is ugly to its core in all of its coded messaging."

PASADENA, CA - FEBRUARY 06:  Actor David Oyelowo (L) accepts the award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for 'Selma', from actor Will Smith onstage at the 46th Annual NAACP Image Awards on February 6, 2015 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Earl Gibson III/WireImage)
Will Smith presented David Oyelowo with the award for Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture for Selma at the 46th Annual NAACP Image Awards in 2015. (Photo: Earl Gibson III/WireImage)

The Help actor wrote that since #OscarsSoWhite, "great gains" have been made by the Academy, under former AMPAS president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and the entertainment industry, "to improve its disgracefully uneven racial and gender demographics." It's taken great efforts to expose "Hollywood’s 'big lie'" — that "Black films and artists don’t travel," or do as well as white-led projects. He acknowledged that box office dynamo "Will Smith himself had a big hand in debunking that lie."

Because of that, Oyelowo wrote it "would be naive" to assume that the Smith-Rock incident would not be "pushed, by some industry professionals, through the lens of race [by] the same folks who resisted the inclusion measures." So he worries the slap will be a setback for the strides made so far in diversity in the entertainment industry.

"My fear is that this unfortunate incident, which has us all processing, will have a negative effect on the ongoing push for inclusion," he wrote. "There are those who, in a bid to make sure something of this nature never happens again, will operate through an unconscious — or conscious — bias. A bias that still governs so much of the decision making in Hollywood. It would be tragic if a bid to prevent such an incident from happening again becomes an excuse for ideas about inclusion and diversity to backslide."

Oyelowo wrote about the "unfair nature of what happened to Chris Rock and those whose achievements were completely overshadowed that night," pointing to Smith's apology for that.

"But in all of our processing of what happened, let’s not forget that there is a disposition exemplified by the man who approached me at that after party," he wrote. "His gossipy lean and the half smile on his face is indicative of what must not be allowed to creep into the aftermath of this incident. We must be vigilant against decision making that would detrimentally affect the gains" made by the industry so far.

He ended by writing, "If there’s one thing I’ve learnt about Hollywood, it’s that it harbors some very good people with good intentions and a number of broken people with bad intentions. I’m calling on the good people with good intentions to stay focused on building on the great gains we’ve recently made. They mustn’t be eroded by those with bad intentions who would seek with relish to weaponize this incident to derail those gains and divide us."

Smith has resigned from the Academy since the Oscars night drama. There's an investigation into the incident. The Academy has since moved up a meeting to decide on Smith sanctions, and it will take place Friday, instead of April 18.