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I wonder if Chris Rock would have taken the Oscars gig if he’d known what it would eventually become.
Rock was hired to host the Academy Awards, which was already a daunting task given the reviews Oscars hosts not named Billy Crystal invariably get, but after the nominations his job shifted from jovial emcee to dedicated expiator of AMPAS sins.
His only responsibilities initially were to crack wise for 10 minutes, set a tone in the room and depart for the majority of the telecast, but instead the responsibility to sufficiently flagellate the awards for their inevitable lack of diversity fell to him, the need to be harsh enough initially that the rest of the show could go on without guilt.
That’s a titanic chore (reference to an actor who will may have already won his first Oscar by the time you read this unintended).
That’s why Chris Rock’s monologue opening the 2016 Oscars was 10 straight minutes of topically addressing the Academy diversity question. Period. Full stop. Nothing else.
If you thought we were going to get a song about the nominees? Nope. If you thought we were going to get punchlines about various successful films from the year to bring viewers into the telecast smoothly? Nope. If you thought Rock was going to revisit his most notorious monologue jokes from his first hosting attempt and lampoon Jude Law? Nope. By the end of the monologue, Rock tossed in a good joke about why reporters ask actress what they’re wearing on the red carpet but not men — men wear the same thing every time, basically — but that was the exception.
Before Rock hit the stage, there was some question of whether he’d just dive right into the #OscarsSoWhite controversy or tiptoe. There was no tiptoeing.
“I counted at least 15 black people in that montage,” Rock cracked after an opening film montage that was, indeed, very conspicuously focused on movies like Concussion and Beasts of No Nation, movies that Oscar voters weren’t nearly so conspicuously interested in.
And then Rock just dove right in, welcoming the crowd to the Oscars, “otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.”
“You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. Y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now,” Rock continued in a clear “it’s funny because it’s true” moment.
If you’ll recall, Rock’s Jude Law jokes were about how prolific he was, and this year’s similar target was Kevin Hart, who Rock suggested would have gotten the job if he’d quit.
“The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart,” he said. “Kev makes movies fast. Every month. Porn stars don’t make movies that fast.”
As for the monologue itself, Rock walked an interesting line between acknowledging the Academy’s problems and making light of them.
“The big question: Why this Oscars?” he asked, regarding protests. “It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole ‘no black nominees’ thing has happened at least 71 other times.”
He suggested this had probably happened several times in the ‘60s as well, but “black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time.”
They were, he observed, “too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.” Ouch. He continued: “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary short.”
There’s definitely something to be said for putting Academy Awards controversies in context, and Rock pulled no punches.
He also didn’t pull any punches in lovingly and gently chiding several of the featured star protestors.
“Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited,” he said of Jada Pinkett Smith. And of her husband, Will, he added, “It’s not fair that Will was this good and didn’t get nominated. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for Wild Wild West.”
Again, putting the protest in context based on seriousness, he warned that this year’s In Memoriam reel was “just gonna be black people who were shot by the cops on theor way to the movies.”
So was Rock cutting Hollywood total slack for racism? Not really.
“Is Hollywood racist?” he pondered. “You gotta go at that the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it ‘Fetch me some lemonade’ racist? No. It’s a different type of racist.”
Rock then told a story about a fundraiser with President Obama and noticing all of the Hollywood liberals who didn’t hire black writers or actors.
“Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist,” he said, clarifying, “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.'”
Here, the director kept cutting to every available person of color in the audience — or to Matt Damon so that Project Greenlight viewers could be amused or made uncomfortable.
Interestingly, when Rock seemed like he was about to get a bit more pointed, he pulled up short.
“We want opportunity,” he declared. “We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. And not just once. Leo gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?”
Rock then mentioned how great Jamie Foxx was in Ray, but just when it seemed like there was a point he was about to make about the Horrible Bosses sequel or the Spider-Man sequel or the Annie remake or any of the other questionable work Foxx has done in recent years, he transitioned to a joke. I’m not sure if Rock thought the punchline about pulling the plug on the real Ray Charles was enough or if he sensed he was running out of time or if the teleprompter lost the actual conclusion or what. I sensed there was a joke about how short-lived the Oscar halo is for the career of African-America Oscar winners, compared with white winners. But maybe there wasn’t?
Rock closed his 10 minutes with, “You want diversity, we got diversity. Please welcome Emily Blunt and somebody whiter, Charlize Theron.”
In the end, Rock’s monologue was blistering and relevant and really funny, but every viewer is going to decide for themselves whether it accomplished what needed to be done — or if anything needed to be done at all.
For viewers who think that Academy Awards diversity is not a problem at all, it was presumably way too monomaniacal, especially if you were hoping that Rock would unload on Donald Trump for a few minutes just to soften the blow of Jon Stewart’s absence from late night.
But for people who think this actually is a serious thing because movies are supposed to be a reflection of society — and the Oscars are supposed to be a reflection of the best in movies — the actual effectiveness may have been mixed. Rock attacked the problem, while minimizing it; announced the racism, but made it seem benign and friendly; offered solutions, but the main feigned solution was black-only categories like “best black friend” (“And the winner for the 18th year in a row is, Wanda Sykes!”).
Was Chris Rock ever going to really burn down the Hollywood machinery on the stage of a Hollywood event? Of course not. In that light, he made the people in the room uncomfortable, made the people at home laugh, but made it possible for the show to go on. That was his actual job. He did it well.
(And, of course, the #OscarsSoWhite jokes continued past the monologue, but that’s the subject of a future review.)
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