Did Chris Rock Save Hollywood's Ass At Oscars 2016? ...And Was He Supposed To?
One thing we can all agree on: Chris Rock was in a tough spot hosting Oscars 2016 last night. The star comic found himself committed to take the helm of the iconic ceremony amid an overwhelming atmosphere of anger and disbelief at the stunning lack of diversity on display in the Oscars top categories, summed up in the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Many of Rock’s peers were openly calling for a boycott of the ceremony and/or throwing their celebrity weight into promoting the #JusticeForFlint fund-raiser in Michigan as an anti-Oscars, including Creed director Ryan Coogler and Selma director Ava Duvernay, not to mention heavyweight musical talent on the order of Janelle Monáe, Erykah Badu and Stevie Wonder! Honoring his commitment to host meant breaking ranks with a black creative class collectively disgusted with Hollywood’s distorted reflection of America. Walking away would represent not only a professional breach but also missing the opportunity for the ultimate teachable moment–and in the process leaving Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaac–a black woman ardently struggling to make change a reality within the Jurassic Oscar voting pool–standing on stage more or less by herself.
As we know, Rock decided to stay the course, a decision that almost certainly encouraged presenters like Common, John Legend and Kerry Washington to walk the red carpet as well, in spite of the glaring disparity of diversity between presenters of the golden statuette and its designated recipients. Hosting an event that will certainly be watched but millions of viewers automatically comes with pressure attached, but that pressure was nothing compared to the expectations in the air surrounding this particular Oscars, with Rock carrying the weight of its success almost entirely on his shoulders. If his jokes felt forced, awkward or divisive the event would almost surely have imploded, possibly even sounding a death knell for the ultimate Hollywood institution if a star talent boycott along racial lines became a more or less permanent civil war amongst star talent. Suffice to say, stakes were high as Rock touched the stage to the adrenaline-inducing opening drum hits of Public Enemy‘s “Fight The Power.”
That was our cue that Rock was going to take the elephant in the room head on, grabbing institutional racism by its ivory tusks and wrestling it into a comedic headlock with the sheer, uncontainable joy at the chance to tell Hollywood about itself. In the first three seconds he noted the conspicuous presence within the opening montage of the same black stars who’d been snubbed for nominations, called The Oscars “The White People’s Choice awards” and threw a sideways elbow at last year’s host Neal Patrick Harris. In the truest tradition of stand up comedy, he then proceeded to skewer everybody else, too, comparing Jada Pinkett-Smith‘s boycott to boycotting Rihanna‘s panties himself (“I wasn’t invited!”) and putting the struggle over diversity in America’s dream factory in painful perspective of the struggle for racial equality in America as a whole with several raw jokes openly referencing slavery and lynching. In a sense, Rock took on #OscarsSoWhite and then put it in its proper proportion to another hashtag that is arguably the defining issue/crisis/movement of our times: #BlackLivesMatter (a cry with which he notably ended the ceremony).
In an Oscars airing that fell flat in terms of ratings, Rock’s energetic and audacious performance (possibly co-written by comedic GOAT Dave Chapelle?!?) made sure it didn’t fall flat in terms of laughs, clearing the air with some true catharsis and setting the stage for The Oscars ceremony to mean something (whether the awards themselves delivered is another matter, though Best Director winner Alejandro Innaritu expressing solidarity in the fight against racial prejudice was surely a highlight, as he talked over his time limit and actually faced down the orchestra into silence as they tried to drown him out with walk off music…and then gave up). In lieu of the sanctimonious self-seriousness that Hollywood loves when it comes to social justice (or any cause for that matter) Rock put the golden rule of comedy first: offend everybody. He succeeded, both in saving the Oscars from itself and in trolling critics from all sides of all debates. The only stunt that got almost no laughs, in fact–introducing Black History Month Hater Stacey Dash as the new czar of diversity at the academy–might have been the most brilliant. An undeniably awkward moment that shamed Dash, shamed Hollywood and created more of an alienation effect than a comedic pause, it felt like a joke who’s intended audience was not the white celebrities in the audience, not the black viewers who reluctantly, cautiously tuned in–but history itself.
Not surprisingly, online reactions was divided, represented within the voices of hiphop with Pete Rock‘s “perfect 100” tweet and Chuck D‘s notably lukewarm reaction to the use of PE’s music. In short, Rock almost singlehandedly save Hollywood’s ass last night. Whether it’s worth saving is still a question larger than him. For all that his “Fight The Power” spirit might have been the only thing that could have redeemed Oscars 2016, there’s a still a lot of fans–and talent–out here who are only bumping “Burn Hollywood Burn.”