The Uneven, Unfunny Racial Landscape Of Oscars 2015: The "Glory," The Tragedy & The Farce
Oscars 2015 caketoppers Neil Patrick Harris and Anna Kendrick. The cake was vanilla frosting on top and mostly unfunny racial jokes inside.
The Oscars have long had a reputation for being a political arena as well as an Awards Show, a moment for Hollywood to put its orgy of self-celebration in perspective--or perhaps simply rationalize it--by using the moment to spotlight pressing issues of the day and reflect the mood of the times. If we judge Oscars 2015 by that measure, the tone of the day is best characterized as the awkward silence (or worse, scattered laughter) after a racially-charged joke is made and cannot be un-said.
It's important to recognize it didn't have to be that way. The evening began, in fact, on a surprisingly smart-assed and auspicious note. Host Neil Patrick Harris began by joking "tonight we honor our best and whitest...I mean brightest." It was an early indication that NPH might take his job as jester-who-dares-speak-the-truth seriously, a role previously played ably by Johnny Carson and Jon Stewart (not to mention Ricky Gervais, if you count the Golden Globes). With that line, Harris (or whoever wrote for him) bit the hand that hired him, calling out the ceremony for its utter (and much commented-on) lack of diversity, an across-the-board bias that nevertheless narrowed to a needle-sharp point with a glaring omission from the list of Best Director nominees, namely Selma director Ava DuVernay--who would have been the first African American woman so honored.
Harris quickly transitioned into safer territory, however, performing the Frozen song "Moving Pictures" with a little help from Anna Kendrick in her princess outfit from Into The Woods. In spite of updated references ("Jimmy Chu" for "shoe") and a bit of Star Wars cos-play it was a classic prince/princess musical number that would have made more sense at an Awards show from the 1950s, Storm Troopers and all. By the end of that first song, it was clear that the fairy tale notion that Hollywood would let truth (or even honest humor) trump narcissistic denial was over.
In a weird inversion of normal Oscars logic (wherein a witty host keeps things moving to save people from the long, maudlin and self-indulgent speeches), many of the acceptance speeches were smart, timely and concise. At least four commented on current issues (Civil rights, wage equality, immigration and suicide/anti-gay prejudice--eloquently spoken to by Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore who memorably urged discontents to "Stay weird. Stay different.") in a manner far more intelligent and to the point than the chatter we're accustomed to getting from the current crop of professional newspeople. The speeches were seemingly sent to save us from the scripted part of the presentation, which often felt like an endless series of white people making clueless, defensive and unfunny jokes in an attempt to deflect the stench of the very real racial disparity on display.
Most of those white people were Neil Patrick Harris, who, among other "zingers":
1) Repeatedly hounded Octavia Spencer to guard his (worthless, it turned out) "predictions lockbox" even though her pleading expression clearly conveyed that she did not want to "help out."
2) Mangled Chiwetel Ejiofor's name, then fumbled
Best Actor nomineeDavid Oyelowo's name, then mispronounced Ejiofor's name AGAIN while making a bad joke about mispronouncing it the first time (yes, they are unfamiliar names to many but as has been pointed out elsewhere, if you can learn to say Tchaikovsky and Eisenstein you can damn well say 'Ejiofor.')
3) Did a minstrel-y approximation of black dialect for the line "Gone Girl, originally titled B!*ches Be Trippin', Yo."
4) In the night's most (?) uncomfortable moment, patronized Oyelowo for his "cute" British accent, then trolled him into reading a cue card that ended on an unsubtle sneak dis of his fellow black actors Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis for their work in Annie. The gaff was almost elevated to the level of surreal performance art by the fact that most viewers recognize Oyelowo solely as the embodiment of MLK, Jr.--who they then had to watch being "set up" by a white agent provocateur in a farcical re-enactment of COINTELPRO's worst abuses of power. Oyelowo attempted to be a good sport but could not conceal his disappointment at the stunt, which resulted in the night's most memorable meme:
Other white people attempted to make Harris look good, however, including a few who inappropriately and drunkenly (you hope) whooped and cheered for John Legend's sobering comment that "There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.” Even Patricia Arquette's heartfelt and timely call for wage equality for women was marred by a formulation ("It’s time for all the women in America — and all the men that love women and all the gay people and all the people of color that we’ve all fought for--to fight for us now") that witlessly implied that the struggles against racism and other forms of oppression were over, or that the people engaged in fighting them were somehow not doing their part for gender equality. To cap the night off, Sean Penn spoiled (his friend) Alejandro González Iñárritu's Best Picture win with an ill-timed joke about Green Cards (backstage Iñárritu confirmed that the two have a friendship characterized by this kind of "brutal" humor. Still, the fact that two men are friends does not exclude the possibility that one of the two is an asshole).
True to the form of the night's speeches, Iñárritu reclaimed his dignity without missing a beat and almost as an after-thought ended on a moving call for both democracy in Mexico and respect for the contribution his countrymen have made to this "incredible immigrant nation." Oscars 2015 could have ended on that note, had not Harris decided to add: "buenas noches!"--in an accent that can best be described as 'California TexMex'. In Cali, it may well be customary to say "buenas noches" at the end of such an event. In Brooklyn, we say "FOH."