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When Chris Rock signed on to host the 2016 Academy Awards, he couldn’t have anticipated the enormity of the #OscarsSoWhite fallout.
The controversy over the lack of diversity, for a second year in a row, has played out like a Hollywood movie ever since the nominations were first announced on Jan. 14 — and now, all eyes are on Rock to see just how far the plot will go.
When all 20 of the acting nominations went to white actors and actresses, reactions on social media and from celebrities such as Jada Pinkett Smith sparked a call to boycott this year’s Oscars, and the comedian and host of the Feb. 28 awards show found himself at the center of public debate. Actors, producers, Academy members and politicians took to talk shows and public forums to weigh in on #OscarsSoWhite, some calling for Rock to step down as host.
But while Tyrese Gibson and 50 Cent turned up public pressure for Rock to bail, others like previous Oscars host Whoopi Goldberg and 2016 Golden Globes host Ricky Gervais said otherwise. “You can’t bitch about it just at Oscar time,” said Goldberg about the larger Hollywood diversity problem, while Gervais said he could do some “serious damage” if he had Rock’s upcoming platform.
The reaction ultimately caught the attention of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, spurring the organization to make historic changes in hopes of increasing diversity moving forward. The incident also opened the floodgates of conversation about what changes can be done beyond the Academy, and with each awards show that brings viewers closer to the Oscars, #OscarsSoWhite remains top of mind — the 2016 SAG Awards were praised for being “diversity TV.”
Rock, for his part, has only referenced the issue once publicly, calling the Oscars “the white BET Awards” on Twitter, and his near-silence has only piqued viewers’ curiosity, raising expectations about what the second-time host will do when he takes the mic during the live telecast.
Here are five reasons why Rock is just the right man for this year’s high-profile hosting job.
He’s Not Afraid to “Go There”
In a wide-ranging conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs discussed #OscarsSoWhite, the org’s response to it and why Rock never considered relinquishing his hosting duties (because, essentially, he has the floor.)
When asked if Rock will tackle the controversy, Boone Isaacs replied, “Well, we’ve always known he was gonna go there, right?” Adding, “This is Chris. We know who he is.”
In fact, she said the Academy would expect nothing less from the edgy comedian: “He is a brilliant, brilliant, observant comedian and performer, and he is a brilliant host. And yes, we want him to [go there], obviously, because way before this, our selection of Chris was to bring some edge and some fun and some funny — intelligent funny — to the telecast. So we know he’s going to do that.”
He Has a History of “Going There”
Rock is known for pushing buttons with his topical commentary, and still getting a laugh. Whether race, politics, religion, sex, marriage, money, even the Boston Marathon bombing and 9/11 — his years of stand-up and performing are proof that virtually no joke is off-limits.
In 2012, he got people paying attention when he tweeted on July 4, “Happy white peoples independence day the slaves weren’t free but I’m sure they enjoyed fireworks.[sic]” His memorable stand-up punchlines range from “I love being famous. It’s almost like being white, y’know?” to the clip above about how he is one of four black people who can afford to live in Alpine, N.J.
He Already Tackled the Topic of Race as Oscars Host
When Rock hosted in 2005, he was the first black man to host the ceremony solo, and 42 million people tuned in (37 million watched last year).
He opened the show by calling out the low — by 2005’s standards — number of black nominees. “It’s a great night tonight, we have four black nominees,” he said. “It’s kind of like the Def Oscar Jam.” Later, he called Hollywood “out of touch with the rest of the country” and showed a taped segment where he interviewed moviegoers at Magic Johnson Theatres about what films they were seeing (none of the Oscar-nominated movies made the cut).
After, in an interview with David Letterman, Rock said he actually “held back” and joked that he would host the awards show again “if there’s a lot of black people on it.” More than a decade later, there are now zero black acting nominees.
He Also Tackled the Topic of Race as Oscars Presenter
While presenting the award for best animated feature at the 2012 Oscars, Rock, in under two minutes, addressed the lack of diversity in Hollywood through the lens of the black voice actor.
“In the world of animation, you can be anything you want to be,” he began. “If you’re a fat woman, you can play a skinny princess. If you’re a short wimpy guy, you can play a tall gladiator. If you’re a white man, you can play an Arabian prince. And if you’re a black man, you can play a donkey or a zebra.” Adding over a laughing crowd, “Can’t play white, my God!”
The rest of his bit was focused on how being a voice actor is the “easiest job in the world.”
He All-But Predicted #OscarsSoWhite Would Happen Years Ago
To Rock, the diversity issue in Hollywood is nothing new (which means he potentially has years of material). In 2014, the writer, director and star of Top Five wrote a blistering essay for THR about what it’s really like to be black in the entertainment industry, which he called a “white industry.”
“Where’s the big black PR agency? Where are the big black agents? Where’s the big black film producer?” he asked when discussing how black actors don’t have black people to turn to for career help. And it’s not just about whether Hollywood is black enough, he wrote: “It’s the most liberal town in the world, and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist.”
Halfway through the essay, Rock hit the 2016 #OscarsSoWhite issue right on the nose: HBO’s True Detective was casting a female role for its second season, and it was the hottest role to get (the part went to Rachel McAdams). “Literally everyone in town was up for that part, unless you were black,” he wrote. “When it comes to casting, Hollywood pretty much decides to cast a black guy or they don’t. We’re never on the ‘short list.’ We’re never ‘in the mix.'”
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Tracee Ellis Ross