how chris rock dealt with the oscars race problem
The comedian didn’t let the Academy off the hook for their lack of diversity in his masterful presentation of the 88th Awards.
Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar and Mad Max: Fury Road dominated the technical categories, but the 88th Academy Awards will be remembered for the way Hollywood belatedly confronted its diversity problem. When the nominations were announced on 14th January, the Academy was condemned for its "lily white" shortlist featuring no black actors and just one nod for Straight Outta Compton, the critically-acclaimed and commercially successful biopic of hip-hop pioneers N.W.A. The #OscarsSoWhite hashtag began trending on Twitter shortly afterwards and diversity became the issue every actor was asked about for the next six weeks as Spike Lee, Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith announced they were boycotting last night's ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Thankfully, in addition to serving up the usual cocktail of glamour, gushing and smug back-slapping, that ceremony never let us forget Hollywood's diversity problem for long.
Host Chris Rock went for the jugular right from the start of his opening monologue. "Welcome to the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People's Choice Awards!" he told a global TV audience approaching one billion. "You know, if they nominated presenters, I wouldn't get this job! You'd all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now!" Rock's quips were consistently sharp and in places, a little edgier than some commentators had expected. "This year, things are going to be a little different," he promised us. "This year, in the In Memoriam package, it's just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies … yes I said it!"
But the real power of his opening monologue lay in the way it exposed the relative subtlety of Hollywood's endemic racism. "Is it burning-cross racist? Is it 'fetch me some lemonade' racist? It's a different type of racist," Rock said before delivering a telling anecdote. "The other night, I was at a fundraiser for president Obama, a lot of you were there. It's all of Hollywood and there were four black people there: me, Quincy Jones, Russell Simmons, Questlove. The usual suspects. At some point you get to take a picture with the President. As they're setting up the picture you get a little moment with the President. I'm like, 'Mr. President, you see all these writers, producers and actors, they don't hire black people - and they're the nicest white people on Earth. They're liberals!'… Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right Hollywood is racist. But it's not the racist you've grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like, 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'"
Rock continued to push the issue throughout the ceremony, introducing Creed star Michael B. Jordan as a "shoulda been nominee" and quipping after one ad break, "Ah we're black." But presumably with the Academy's support, he had also prepared some pro-diversity body blows in advance. He introduced a "special presentation" for "Black History Month Minute" that ended with a stinging twist, asked black movie-goers outside a Compton theatre if they had even heard of Oscar nominated films like Bridge of Spies and Trumbo, and joined Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie Jones and Tracy Morgan for a brilliant skit sending up the difficulty black actors have in landing decent roles. "I'll tell you something, maybe some day they'll make a movie about a skinny white lady who invented a mop," Goldberg said during the sketch, referring to Joy, the film in which Jennifer Lawrence plays the woman who invented the Miracle Mop. "Of course, a black girl would have to invent a cure for cancer before they even gave her a TV movie."
Admittedly, there was the odd awkward moment. Rock introduced Clueless actress and Fox News pundit Stacey Dash as the "new director of the Academy's minority outreach program," a satirical reference to Dash's controversial comments earlier this year calling for an end to Black History Month. "I cannot wait to help my people out. Happy Black History Month!" Dash told the audience as she took to the stage, but the joke fell flat and The Weeknd's baffled facial expression seemed to say it all.
More hearteningly, Kevin Hart used his time on stage to "applaud all of my actors and actresses of colour" and Sacha Baron Cohen attacked the diversity issue by resurrecting Ali G. Appearing on stage in character as the fictional wide boy from Staines, he told the audience: "But I is here looking out for all those who have been overlooked: Will Smith, Idris Elbow, and the amazing black bloke from Star Wars - Darth Vader."
But perhaps most encouragingly of all, the Academy's President Cheryl Boone Isaacs used the ceremony to deliver a well-intentioned call-to-arms. "Our audiences are global and rich in diversity and every facet of our industry should be as well," she told the industry's power players from the stage of the Dolby Theatre. "Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today. The Academy board of governors recently took concrete action and sent a message that inclusion only serves to make us all stronger. And it's important that the members of the Academy and everyone in this room help deliver that message. Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in the industry; it's not enough to just listen and agree - we must take action."
Was Hollywood listening? Only time will tell, but the way the industry was forced to confront its diversity problem last night feels like a step in the right direction.