West Philly takes over the Oscars thanks to Questlove…and Will Smith

The Roots drummer’s big win was nearly overshadowed by the slap heard ‘round the world.

willsmith-questlove-oscars
AP Photo

💌 Love Philly? Sign up for the free Billy Penn newsletter to get everything you need to know about Philadelphia, every day.


Two of the most recognized celebrities from Philadelphia had back-to-back memorable moments at the 94th Academy Awards ceremony.

One was expected. The other was definitely not.

In the best news of the night for Philly fans, who had several local nominees to root for, Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson won Best Documentary for “Summer of Soul.” The Roots drummer and co-founder, who has a street sign at South and Passyunk in his honor, is now an Oscar winner.

The film, which he directed, is subtitled “…or, When the Revolution Could Not be Televised.” It shines a light on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, which attracted hundreds of thousands of attendees but wasn’t recognized for decades, until Questlove unearthed the footage and strung it together into a loving tribute.

“This is not about me,” Questlove said in his emotional acceptance speech Sunday night. “This is about marginalized people in Harlem that need to heal from pain.”

His big win was unfortunately overshadowed by what happened directly before it, when Will Smith walked on stage and slapped the bejambles out of award presenter Chris Rock.

Smith, famously “West Philadelphia, born and raised,” was reacting to a joke Rock made about looking forward to seeing his wife, Jada Pinkett Smith, in “G.I. Jane 2” because of her shaved head. Pinkett Smith, who was sitting in the front rows with her husband, last year went public with her diagnosis of alopecia, an autoimmune disease that leads to hair loss.

At first when Smith marched up to Rock during the live telecast, and smacked him hard across the face, attendees and viewers weren’t sure if the act was part of a prepared skit.

But as the theater went silent, Smith left no doubt, loudly shouting “Get my wife’s name out of your fucking mouth!” The U.S. broadcast was censored in what may have been the longest bleep-muting in Oscar history, but clips of Japanese and Australian TV soon began circulating online.

Reactions poured in from around the world. Opinions varied widely, with some people praising Smith for standing up against poking fun of disability, something that’s rare on the public stage.

Others decried Smith for using violence to immediately confront Rock.

Some observed that under other circumstances, a slap like that might be treated as an assault, and merit an arrest for Smith. Rock later declined to file a police report, according to the LAPD.

Many Philadelphians just noted the Philly-ness of the situation.

Smith, who was recently in Philadelphia to launch a book tour, did get a chance to address things. He was back on stage a short bit later to collect his first-ever Oscar, winning Best Actor for the title role in the Venus and Serena Williams biopic “King Richard.”

“I want to apologize to the Academy, I want to apologize to all my fellow nominees,” he said in a tearful acceptance speech. “Art imitates life,” Smith added. “I look like the crazy father, just like they said about Richard Williams. But love will make you do crazy things.”

Questlove refused to let the kerfuffle distract from his win. A reporter tried to ask about it backstage, but the Fallon band leader brushed it off.

“I’m not talking about that,” said Questlove. “We’re very happy right now to accept this award.”

Mornings are for coffee and local news

Billy Penn’s free morning newsletter gives you a daily roundup of the top Philly stories you need to start your day.

You finished another Billy Penn article — keep it up!

We hope you found it useful, fun, or maybe even both. If you want more stories like this, will you join us as a member today?

Nice to see you (instead of a paywall)

Billy Penn’s mission is to provide free, quality information to Philadelphians through our articles and daily newsletter. If you believe local journalism is key to a healthy community, join us!

Your donation brought this story to life

Billy Penn only exists because of supporters like you. If you find our work valuable, consider making a sustaining donation today.

Being informed looks good on you

Thanks for reading another article, made possible by members like you. Want to share BP with a friend?