Why Chris Rock shouldn’t boycott the Oscars

After a week of pressure from social media and a range of celebrities, Academy of Motion Pictures Art and Science president Cheryl Boone Isaacs issued a new call to diversify the electorate that chooses nominees for the Academy Awards.

Isaacs, who is African-American, joined actress Jada Pinkett Smith and director Spike Lee, among others, in expressing disappointment in the all-white list of acting nominees and the lack of racial diversity overall in the awards.

“In the coming days and weeks, we will conduct a review of our membership recruitment in order to bring about much-needed diversity in our 2016 class and beyond,” Isaacs said in a statement.

Isaacs touted attempts she’s already made to make the Oscars ceremony more diverse, among them hiring comedian Chris Rock to host the show. Rock, who called the Oscars “the white BET Awards,” has been called on to boycott the ceremony in a show of solidarity for the black actors and actresses snubbed by the awards. Doing so, however, would take away from Rock and those tweeting #OscarsSoWhite a golden opportunity.

Over its 88 years, many have used the ceremony to further political agendas or initiate protests, bringing to the gilded stage uncomfortable conversations about war, global warming, and civil rights. 

The Academy Awards ceremony is notoriously laborious and gaudy, brimming with pomp and undue officiousness for a show that’s largely about rich people giving other rich people symbolic statues. It’s as orchestrated and artificial an event as a country club wedding.

Over its 88 years, many have used the ceremony to further political agendas or initiate protests, bringing to the gilded stage uncomfortable conversations about war, global warming, and civil rights.

Instead of boycotting the event, Rock could bring attention to the lack of diversity to the event itself through his brand of biting comedy and satire. In doing so, he would join a lengthy history of Hollywood legends who have used their position to highlight the struggles of people not invited to prance down the red carpet in gowns and tuxedos.

In the early 1970s, Marlon Brando became an early public supporter of the American Indian Movement, an advocacy group mostly known for occupying the town of Wounded Knee, South Dakota. Brando, nominated for his performance in The Godfather, sent a young Apache woman in his stead to refuse the Oscar, in a protest of the film industry’s treatment of Native American actors and actresses.


In 1978, Best Supporting Actress Vanessa Redgrave denounced protesters and the Jewish Defense League for criticizing her funding of a pro-Palestine documentary, decrying them in her acceptance speech as “a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and to their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”


The new millennium has seen recent winners also express disdain–Michael Moore’s famous denouncement of the Iraq War in 2003 and Sean Penn’s protest of California’s anti-gay marriage law Proposition 8 in 2009 grabbed headlines and brought the culture wars of the Bush years to Hollywood’s biggest night. Last year’s Oscars, which were also dominated by white actors and directors, was dubbed “the most politically charged in years” as winners protested gender inequality, mass surveillance, and, in the case of Common and John Legend, everything from Black Lives Matter to the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong and the Charlie Hebdo shootings.


Common and Legend’s speech was dubbed “the most relevant moment of the evening” and even called “inspirational” by the Academy itself. It captured the adoration of social media users upset by the lack of diversity as well as bringing the tone of the Best Picture nominee Selma—which depicts civil rights protests in the South as led by Martin Luther King, Jr.—to the ceremony.

This year’s nominees are clearly even less diverse than last year’s—Selma’s nomination might have lifted the pain—with huge snubs of African-American-led films such as Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, and Tangerine, the Sundance darling filmed on two iPhones and starring two black transgender woman. As even recent history shows, even a single speech can break the glamour and glitz of the Oscars to bring reality to the wealthy audience at hand.

Chris Rock would join a lengthy history of Hollywood legends who have used their position to highlight the struggles of people not invited to prance down the red carpet in gowns and tuxedos. 

Chris Rock, and those calling on him to boycott the ceremony, would do well to utilize his position as host of the evening to draw even more attention to the lack of diversity of the nominees and find his own place in the history of the awards. Boycotts function best when they actually stand to hurt the target—Martin Luther King, Jr. and other civil rights activists knew this when boycotting bus companies across the South in the 1950s. If Rock steps down, all it will accomplish is attracting negative attention to a ceremony already steeped in controversy and forcing the show to replace him as host with any number of Hollywood legends—perhaps a nine-time host who has already shown little concern for racial sensitivity.

Instead, Rock has a golden opportunity to make the intricately-planned event very uncomfortable. He’s one of the most successful comedians of all time because, among other reasons, of his innate ability to confront uncomfortable realities about race with energy and stinging wit. In 2014, Rock penned a scathing essay in The Hollywood Reporter denouncing the state of race relations in Hollywood. “If Kevin Hart is playing 40,000 seats a night, and Jon Stewart is playing 3,000…why does Kevin Hart have to cross over?” Rock asks incredulously, calling Hollywood “a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry.” This is the voice that should be at the Oscars. 

Isaacs clearly wants to take real steps to change the demographics of the Academy electorate, which is 94 percent white and 77 percent male, over the long term. In the meantime, Rock could bring the representation so clearly missing from the Awards not just with his presence but with his words.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetterImage via David Torcivia / Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed 

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter

Gillian Branstetter is a reporter and essayist who specializes in the intersection of technology, LGBTQ issues, and privacy. In April 2018, she joined the National Center for Transgender Equality as a media relations manager.