HOLLYWOOD — Everyone knew that Oscars host Chris Rock, after six weeks of silence on the issue, was going to address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy during his monologue Feb. 28.
But viewers may not have been prepared for Rock’s double-barreled assault on racism in Hollywood. He explored it head-on, not just in his opening speech but in comments and recorded segments throughout the show.
“Everyone wants to know: Is Hollywood racist? Is it burning-cross racist? No. It’s a different kind of racist,” Rock said.
“You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist, but not the racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.
“But things are changing,” he added, building up to a joke. “We got a black ‘Rocky’ this year. Some people call it ‘Creed.’ I call it ‘Black Rocky.’
Rock had been widely expected to speak up on the well-documented lack of ethnic and gender diversity in Hollywood after no minorities were nominated in any of the four acting categories for the second consecutive year. The exclusion caused an uproar and led some prominent black celebrities, including actress Jada Pinkett Smith and filmmaker Spike Lee, to skip the show.
Rock said that he himself was urged by some to step down as host in protest.
“I thought about quitting. I thought about it real hard. But they’re not going to cancel the Oscars because I quit. And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”
Rock’s monologue alternated between jokes and more serious statements echoing those of black leaders who have called for the movie industry to be more inclusive in hiring and casting minorities.
“It’s not about boycotting. We want opportunities,” Rock said. “We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors — that’s it. Not just once.”
Some of Rock’s more pointed jokes drew gasps or stunned silence from the mostly white audience inside Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
“This is the 88th Academy Awards. So this whole ‘no black nominees’ thing has happened at least 71 other times,” he said. Rock said black Americans didn’t made a fuss about it back then because they had more important things to worry about.
“We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer,” he said. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
Rock pushed things even further when he joked that the Oscars telecast would be a little different this year.
“In the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people who were shot by the cops on the way to the movies,” he said, a reference to police shootings that galvanized the #BlackLivesMatter movement.
Reaction online to Rock’s comments — and the racially tinged tenor of the show — was mostly positive.
“Rock’s opening monologue was not only funnier than most in recent memory; it was stinging enough to ricochet through the rest of the evening, as the inevitable cavalcade of white presenters and winners took the mike,” wrote Michael Schulman in the New Yorker.
“This year will be remembered, rightly, for its thorny racial politics and for the way that Rock, probably as well as anyone could, held the industry to account on its biggest night.”
Yesha Callahan, writing for the Root, a news site about African-American culture, noted the confused looks on the faces of some audience members.
“Some were in awe, some didn’t know if they should laugh and others just sat there with the ‘I just sucked a sour lemon’ look on their faces. And this is why Rock was chosen. The Academy knew he would be the one person to address the lack of diversity head on,” she wrote.
“In the end, Rock’s monologue and other jokes through the night may not have been perfect, but no one’s jokes ever are. But what Rock and his team of writers did is what they do best. They made people feel uncomfortable. They made people think.”
On Twitter, some prominent observers, including two-time Oscars host Ellen DeGeneres, praised Rock’s hosting job.
From its opening moments, when Rock walked onstage to the thumping beat of Public Enemy’s classic rap anthem “Fight the Power,” it was clear the ceremony’s producers had given the host free rein to explore racial themes throughout the show.
The #OscarsSoWhite protests arose after nominations were announced in January and critically acclaimed black Oscar hopefuls such as “Beasts of No Nation’s” Idris Elba, “Concussion” star Will Smith, “Creed” star Michael B. Jordan and the cast of N.W.A biopic “Straight Outta Compton” all were ignored.
Although Rock had remained quiet on the #OscarsSoWhite furor in the weeks leading up to the show, Oscars producer Reginald Hudlin said last month that the host was rewriting his opening monologue to call out the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes on the Oscars.
The Academy clearly aimed for diversity in its choice of presenters and performers, about one-third of whom were people of color.
Rock closed the night by saying “black lives matter,” as “Fight the Power” again pumped from the speakers. In the end, it made for an unusually single-minded, topical approach to what is usually a thematically sprawling awards show.
“In case you didn’t get it from the monologue, the Oscars race issue was brought up in no less than three filmed segments, each of which was amusing on its own, but maybe together tended toward overkill, stretched across a telecast that ran long,” wrote Daniel Fienberg in the Hollywood Reporter.
“Rock did well within the single-minded approach he and the producers chose to take. Even if the conversation was sometimes myopic, there was an attempt to make the Oscars about something more important than just honoring rich people.”