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Chris Rock has made a career out of being insightful on race. But Rock’s presence at the Academy Awards took on additional meaning when people of color were excluded from all the acting categories for the second year in a row and the #OscarsSoWhite controversy reared its head again. Suddenly, it became impossible to talk about the Oscars without wondering whether Rock would use his platform to put the Academy in its place.
He didn’t disappoint. In Rock’s monologue, and throughout the rest of the show, race became the overwhelming theme of the ceremony, even as the mostly white nominees lined up to accept their awards. Most critics thought he did a great job, though not everyone was pleased. Columnist Arthur Chu and Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King both thought he went too far at moments, and consensus seemed to be that an odd bit featuring Fox News correspondent Stacey Dash largely fell flat.
Some viewers on Twitter also felt that Rock did not do enough to include other races in his commentary on the Oscars’ diversity troubles (controversial director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who took home his second trophy in as many years, did a bit to correct this trend in his acceptance speech). Representation in other areas became a hot topic too, after Sam Smith pulled an upset in the Best Song category by beating Lady Gaga and her powerful tribute to sexual assault survivors, and then mistakenly identified himself as the first openly gay man ever to win an Academy Award. Perhaps the racially charged, occasionally uncomfortable tone of the night was what kept others from watching altogether, as viewership for the show fell to an eight-year low.
It was a strange Oscars overall, but for Rock’s part, he did the best job he possibly could to keep things smart and funny while also speaking harsh truths. Not all of his jokes landed, and perhaps some of his material did go too far, while other parts didn’t go far enough. But Rock pulled off the impossibly difficult balancing act of hoisting and conveying a message, and it’s unlikely that his commentary didn’t have some kind of effect on those who did watch. For instance, his suggestion that, “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,” was a reminder of the bigger stakes at play for racial equality in America. After all, Hollywood racism is, like all racism in America, part of a larger culture that continually marginalizes and does harm to its non-white citizens.
The more pertinent question is what effect Rock’s words had on the Academy, if any. While the Oscars might’ve been happy to hand over the ceremony to Rock for a night, it would be a shame if anyone thought that was enough. Hiring Chris Rock as your host is a good start, but it’s also just that: a beginning, not a conclusion. And although this year’s Academy Awards was undeniably obsessed with race, it’s hard to tell if the Academy actually absorbed anything Rock was saying, or if it was merely trying to appease a public who have recently become very aware of the Academy’s image problem.
“Rock consistently went out of his way to signal to black audiences that he was speaking to them and not just to the white people assembled in the Dolby Theatre, sprinkling the show with Easter eggs for black people,” noted Slate’s Willa Paskin. NPR’s Eric Deggans was similarly complimentary, writing, “With all its flaws, Rock’s turn as Oscars host provided a visceral look at the talent, comedy, lives and culture left out of Academy Award-level films when they exclude people of color. Here’s hoping that’s enough to keep the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from making the same mistakes regarding inclusion for a third year in a row.”
However, Deggans also suggests that, “It might be tempting to look back on the night as a roast of Hollywood’s film community, a parade of jibes about diversity that the industry will endure, only to return to business as usual when the dust clears. In a world where only white people have been nominated for acting Oscars two years running, that’s certainly a possibility.”
What Deggans posits here is the possibility that people will give the Academy a pat on the back for letting Rock lay into it so heavily. But while Rock got to do the show his way, and he should be applauded for his efforts, the Academy deserves no such praise. Rock’s appearance was a small bandage on a massive wound. It’s going to take a lot more than some well-deserved ribbing to fix Oscar’s whiteness problem.
RIght now, members of the Academy are probably feeling pretty good about themselves. They let Rock do his thing, they put an emphasis on diversity throughout the show, most people went home happy (especially Leo). Now that it’s all over, they can feel free to slip back into complacency following an Oscar ceremony which did its darndest to remind viewers that despite what you’ve heard, they do care about people of color.
But #OscarsSoWhite isn’t over. It won’t and it can’t be over until the Academy and Hollywood at large start casting American films in a way that accurately captures contemporary America. Award shows are just a small part of Hollywood’s race issue, but as an encapsulation of the entertainment industry, they are important. If Hollywood trusts Chris Rock, a black man, to entertain all of America on the most important industry night of the year for three hours, why don’t they trust actors of color with better parts year round?
Chuck D of Public Enemy—the legendary hip-hop group whose song “Fight the Power” played as the closing credit music for the ceremony—put it best: “The point of the song is a call to making change eventually, not just applauding the thought,” he tweeted. On Sunday, it felt a little like the Oscars were applauding the thought of change, not the implementation of it.
This was further evidenced by the exclusion of trans singer Anhoni, who was nominated in the Best Original Song category, but not invited to perform. On their website, the Oscars singled out the fact that she was the first trans person ever nominated. But by calling attention to the nomination, rather than giving her the opportunity to share her art with the world, they managed to congratulate themselves in lieu of an important chance for trans representation. It’s unsurprising that Anhoni wasn’t asked to take the stage, as the Academy only gave time to more famous artists that night. Yet to celebrate the act of the nomination while effectively silencing the performer is sadly indicative of the Oscars’ general idea of progress.
Whether we’re talking about race or sexuality, the Oscars have historically seemed in favor of half measures. Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs has taken steps to prevent a third year of #OscarsSoWhite, but we won’t know if the Academy’s new policies prove to be as effective as she hopes until 2017. In the meantime, we should celebrate Chris Rock for calling out the Academy the way he did. We should laugh at his pointed remarks, many of which were all the funnier because they were so true. But when we’re done laughing, we must get back to the business of fixing Hollywood.
Because if this same controversy repeats itself next year, there will be no room for jokes left.
Photo via Disney | ABC Television Group/Flickr (CC BY ND 2.0)
Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.