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The aftermath of Will Smith's slap illuminates the links of Black Hollywood

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

We all know by now what happened at last week's Academy Awards ceremony. In the minutes after the smack, the audience seemed to be in shock, but two Black actors sprung to Will Smith's side - Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry. That got us to thinking about that small, elite circle of Black actors and actresses that inhabit Black Hollywood and what that means at moments like this. To try and break it down, we're joined now by NPR's TV critic Eric Deggans and Pop Culture Happy Hour co-host Aisha Harris. Welcome to you both.

AISHA HARRIS, BYLINE: Thank you.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Yeah, thank you.

RASCOE: So let's start with what I just mentioned. There were a lot of people in that room last Sunday. And, you know, there were some other actors that went over and talked to Will Smith. But Denzel Washington and Tyler Perry, two very larger-than-life figures in Black Hollywood, were talking to Will Smith after the incident. Like, what does that say to each of you? Let's start with Eric.

DEGGANS: Well, to me, the first thing I thought is the biggest Black powerbrokers in the room are gathering around Will Smith, signaling that they're supporting him even after he committed this act of violence in front of everyone else. And I wonder if that isn't continuing until now. Will Packer, the lead executive producer of the Oscars, did an interview with "Good Morning America" on Friday, where he tried to explain why, for example, so many people in the room stood up and gave Will Smith a standing ovation when he was announced as the winner of the best actor Oscar. Let's check it out.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

WILL PACKER: It doesn't make anything that he did right, and it doesn't excuse that behavior at all. But I think that the people in that room who stood up, stood up for somebody who they knew - right? - who was a peer, who was a friend, who was a brother.

HARRIS: I didn't actually find that moment surprising to see people like Denzel and Tyler going up to him right after. It felt like if you were at a party or at an event, a family event, there are older people in the room. There's going to be the older people trying to calm the other people down who were involved with the ruckus. So it felt like a very intimate moment...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes. Yeah.

HARRIS: ...That we do not usually see amongst, you know, people of that stature.

RASCOE: There has also been a number of Black powerbrokers with a lot of influence that wanted to help, but also to set a standard in Black Hollywood. Like, am I thinking about that right?

DEGGANS: I think you are. And one of the things that's interesting to me is that there's a lineage that goes all the way back to the classic civil rights movement where Martin Luther King Jr. even told Black celebrities, you know, do whatever you can to help in whatever space you're in. And I think people like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier and even, believe it or not, Bill Cosby picked up on that. And I'm teaching my students at Duke University about this principle called linked fate. And it's this idea that members of a minority group see their future and their well-being not only in their own well-being, but in the well-being of the entire group. And there is a cultural sort of imperative to look out for other members of your group because you know that there's so many forces out there that are pushing against their well-being.

RASCOE: So when you have kind of this elite circle, it is possible for people to be on the outside of that, right? And are there people - there are Black actors and actresses who have struggled because they have fallen on the outs with this circle, right?

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, one of the most notable examples is Mo'Nique, who, of course, won the Oscar for "Precious," but she famously did not want to campaign for the film. She said, you know, this wasn't in my contract. You're taking me away from my family, and you're not going to pay me extra to do this. Like, that is a job. Campaigning is a job. And people like Tyler Perry, who was a producer on the film, and Lee Daniels, who directed that film, felt that she was being ungrateful and that she wasn't playing the game, as it were. Lee Daniels, according to Mo'Nique - she would say in later interviews that he told her that she was blackballed because of it.

RASCOE: And, Aisha, how does social media kind of change that dynamic as well?

HARRIS: As with everything within the last 15, 20 years, it's changed things dramatically. I think it's made the idea of there being a Black Hollywood even more prominent in people's minds because if you follow any of these creators - and I follow a lot of them - there's so much cross-pollination...

RASCOE: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...In terms of hyping each other up, celebrating birthdays...

RASCOE: (Laughter) Yes.

DEGGANS: Yep.

HARRIS: ...And showing behind-the-scenes stuff. You see that camaraderie, and there's this, like, sense that it's a different bond than what you might see in, like, Hollywood as a whole.

RASCOE: But, you know, to be very frank, some of this is camaraderie, is bigging each other up, but it's also - this is an industry, and there's a concern about ruffling feathers, right? Like, obviously, there have not been a lot of Black actors and actresses talking about what happened at the Oscars. There - here and there. And it would seem like maybe it's about support, but it's also about, like, I don't want to make nobody mad, right?

DEGGANS: Oh, yeah. And here's the thing. Chris Rock is a director and producer, too. But he is a much less powerful entity than - I don't know, what do - do we call them, Jadill (ph) or Willda (ph)?

RASCOE: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I think it's just Will and Jada.

RASCOE: Yeah.

DEGGANS: Will and Jada. He's a much less powerful entity than they are. And it seems to be the story that Hollywood is reluctant to face, of less powerful people having to cope with more powerful people doing what they want. Who's going to step up in Black Hollywood, who is not a comedian, and defend Chris Rock and make the point that what Will Smith did was not cool? You know, if you're going to be an authority figure, if you want to be somebody who sets a standard, you cannot possibly stand for letting somebody smack somebody on live television and then suffer no consequences for it.

RASCOE: We've been speaking with NPR's Eric Deggans and Aisha Harris. Thanks to you both.

HARRIS: Thank you.

DEGGANS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.