In a decision that could conceivably put additional pressure on Chris Rock to pull out as host of the 88th annual Oscars, Will Smith told Robin Roberts in a pretaped interview on "GMA" Thursday morning that he will not attend the Feb. 28 ceremony.
“No,” he said when asked whether he'd attend. “My wife’s [Jada Pinkett Smith] not going. It would be awkward to show up with Charlize [Theron, like Smith, another high-profile Oscar snub] … we've discussed it. ... We're part of this community. But at this current time, we're uncomfortable to stand there and say this is OK."
Smith's pronouncement comes as the Motion Picture Academy readies a handful of changes to address one of the biggest, and growing, controversies in its recent history -- the absence of any black nominees among the major acting categories for the second year in a row -- and which has already engulfed the host. Rock's made no public pronouncement about the controversy, other than via Twitter, calling the 88th Oscars the "White BETs."MORENyong’o, Clooney comment on Oscar diversityMOREAcademy: Taking ‘dramatic steps’ to diversify OscarsMORESpike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith to boycott Oscars
A host backing out is not unprecedented -- Eddie Murphy bowed out in 2011 when friend Brett Ratner stepped down as the show producer after he came under fire for making a homophobic slur. But the circumstances facing Rock are far more complex, with a telecast a little over a month away, giving a replacement little time to prepare for what will be almost certainly be the most difficult balancing act in Oscar host history. To wit: How to celebrate the nominees while also casting derision on the nominating process, dearth of black nominees, and membership of the Academy itself.
Moreover, backing out doesn't simply punish the Academy but the co-producer, Reginald Hudlin -- also African-American -- would also have to scramble for a replacement.
Nevertheless, Smith's decision instantly sends the controversy into higher orbit. A member of Hollywood royalty, he joins another member -- Spike Lee -- who also announced he will not attend. If their logic appears impeccable -- that attendance would tacitly support a nominating process that excluded not just black actors but black filmmakers this year -- then why would it not be impeccable to other prominent Academy members, white and black? As host, Rock could of course use ridicule as a powerful corrective but that could backfire as well, turning the TV show into a political statement that overshadows the awards themselves. He's also been outspoken on the issue of race and exclusion in Hollywood, notably in this column for the Hollywood Reporter in 2014.
Smith's comments from Thursday's edition were hardly charged, but measured and thoughtful -- giving them even more impact. "The beauty of Hollywood combined with American ideals [is] the basis of the American concept that anything is possible, with hard work and dedication, no matter your race," he said, adding: "I think that diversity is the American superpower. That's why we are so great, [with] so many different people from so many different places adding their ideas, inspirations and influences to this beautiful American gumbo ..."
"But for my art, I think I have to protect and fight for the ideals that make our country -- make our Hollywood community -- great."
Of the nominees, he said: "Everyone is fantastic, and that's the complexity of this issue, but it feels like we're going in the wrong direction. The nominations reflect the Academy and the Academy reflects the industry, and the industry reflects America. There's a series of challenges that we are having as a country at the moment -- a regressive slide towards separatism, towards racial and religious disharmony. That's not the Hollywood I want to leave behind."
Yes, he wasn't nominated for "Concussion" -- some saying the reason his wife made her stand -- but Smith, a two-time nominee, said: "This is so deeply not about me. This is about children that are going to sit down and watch this show and they're not going to see themselves represented."
Except in the hosting role.