The Oscars and its accompanying spectacle—the red carpet, the lights, the cameras, the brassy shit show it all amounts to—are about the power of the moment. It’s supposed to be a night of celebration: a long, drawn out ceremony of recognition for Hollywood’s elite. But the fact that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ scope of recognition looked right over minority performers this year, as it’s done in the past, set the stage for the 88th Academy Awards to be a moment of great magnitude and contention—especially since Chris Rock was this year’s host.
Rock’s brilliance lies in his ability to draw astute, percipient humor from the ugliest situations. His HBO special Chris Rock: Bring the Pain made him a superstar 20 years ago, and its successor, Bigger and Blacker, drew similar acclaim due to Rock’s analysis of current affairs, i.e. the moment. The topic of conversation surrounding the Oscars was its reverberating lack of diversity, and, aside from tuning in to see if Leonardo DiCaprio would finally get his Oscar, Rock’s handling of the situation was the main draw. Specifically, would this be an exclamation point to an extended and eventful Black History Month, or just a period at its conclusion? Without completely admitting to looking at the field of potential nominees through white goggles, the Academy has owned up to its oversight and promised change. The result was a production that felt bigger and blacker to the point of not feeling genuine at times, and to the extent that the actual point the Academy tried to make was submerged in the theatrics.
That’s not to take away from the bulk of what Chris Rock did, unnecessary jokes notwithstanding. As a returning host, he understood what was at stake, hence why he rewrote his routine after seeing this year’s nominees. In addition to being one of the Oscars’ few interesting moments, the opening monologue is meant to dictate the evening’s tone. As expected, he went for the jugular from the gate just as he did in 2005.
Back then, he made note of the four black nominees (Jamie Foxx for Ray and Collateral, Morgan Freeman for Million Dollar Baby, Don Cheadle and Sophie Okonedo for Hotel Rwanda); this year he addressed the stark contrast head-on, making note of the "15 black people" he counted in the opening montage before branding the Oscars the "White People’s Choice Awards." The true gem of Rock’s opening, however, was his description of Hollywood’s very distinct brand of racism.
"Hollywood is sorority racist," Rock said. "It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is." That institutional dismissal harks back to an essay Rock wrote for The Hollywood Reporter in December 2014 about the industry's race problem:
It's a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I'm not even saying it's a bad thing. It just is. And the black people they do hire tend to be the same person. That person tends to be female and that person tends to be Ivy League. And there's nothing wrong with that. As a matter of fact, that's what I want for my daughters. But something tells me that the life my privileged daughters are leading right now might not make them the best candidates to run the black division of anything. And the person who runs the black division of a studio should probably have worked with black people at some point in their life. Clint Culpepper [a white studio chief who specializes in black movies] does a good job at Screen Gems because he's the kind of guy who would actually go see Best Man Holiday. But how many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don't really hire black men. A black man with bass in his voice and maybe a little hint of facial hair? Not going to happen.
Last night felt like an attempt to overcompensate all at once, with #GuiltSoWhite replacing #OscarsSoWhite as the overarching theme.
Since the nominees and subsequent boycotts of the Oscars were announced last month, the Academy has stumbled over itself to recruit notable black entertainers to speak or present awards to non-minority winners. Michael B. Jordan. Whoopi Goldberg. Louis Gossett, Jr. Common and John Legend. Quincy Jones and Pharrell. Morgan Freeman. The attempt to put the best face(s)—many of whom are Oscar winners—forward went deep, but also went left at points during the evening. The biggest WTF arrived when, after a skit about Oscar contenders recreated with black actors, Rock introduced Stacey Dash of all people as the remedy to Hollywood’s problem.
From Dash’s mere appearance to her "Happy Black History Month" in light of her recent comments about the matter, the joke bricked. Hard. Dash remains too eager to cling to the quasi-relevance she established over 20 years ago, and the gag failed overall because the sparse claps revealed that, in 2016, the group that tolerates Stacey Dash is only marginally smaller than the one that actually knows who she is. It felt like a troll involving someone who does just that semi-regularly, undercutting the goodwill the Oscars was working overtime to establish.
Music either serves a transitional purpose at the Oscars or is wedged into the show to keep viewers awake. (In turn, it can have a converse effect, as well.) Much of the music played during this year’s show—and I don’t mean The Weeknd’s performance of "Earned It"—was aimed at black viewers. Whoopi Goldberg appeared to the sound of Tina Turner’s "What’s Love Got to Do with It." Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the stage to Whitney Houston’s "I Will Always Love You," and I swear I heard a portion of En Vogue’s "Don’t Let Go (Love)" at one point during the night. A segment of Stevie Wonder’s "I Just Called to Say I Love You" was played while Wonder himself performed "Love’s in Need of Love Today" and other classics at Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler’s Justice for Flint benefit. Kool & the Gang’s "Hollywood Swinging" closed the show, while Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power" was played during Rock’s entrance and over the end credits. But bookending a show criticized for omitting minority talent with a protest song felt like the Academy patting itself on the back without having done anything.
The reason people are upset—the reason the Oscars were boycotted, the reason there were multiple suggested alternatives to it—is because of a historic invisibility issue. Hollywood has largely ignored non-white faces, and when it finally decides to acknowledge them, it’s often only in certain types of roles which might as well be boxes. Either that, or when the heat is on. Last night played out like the Academy exerting extra effort to atone for its legacy in one night, which can’t be done. You can’t put a Band-Aid on something that needs a tourniquet, just like you can’t cure something terminal with a flu shot. The Hollywood that created this situation and has perpetuated it for nearly 90 years can’t be corrected over the course of four hours. Simply putting black faces on stage and playing black music in the background doesn’t fix anything. An entire perspective must be overhauled, so showing out in an attempt (the key word here being "attempt") to placate people for one night doesn’t equate to change.
The show is over. Will Hollywood’s status quo resume? On the red carpet, Kerry Washington told Robin Roberts that, as a black woman and newly minted Academy member, she was present so "we never have a year like this again." That's the goal, but the Academy Washington now belongs to—and everyone else—needs to care about diversity aside from when the pressure is on. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy will go away now that Oscars Season is over, but that doesn't mean progress has been achieved.
"Things are changing," Chris Rock said during his monologue. Let’s hope so. We'll have to wait and find out.