Comedian and Oscar host Chris Rock opened the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday with a blistering monologue that relabeled the Oscars as the “white people’s choice awards” and wrung uncomfortable laughs over the ongoing controversy regarding Hollywood’s lack of diversity.
As has been widely reported, no actors of color were nominated for an Oscar for the second year in the row, which led to increased scrutiny of the industry’s hiring practices both in front of and behind the camera, as well as reforms to the Oscar voting process itself.
During his opening remarks, Rock did not shy away from the debate, taking just as many shots at his black peers who chose to boycott the show over its failure to recognize minority talent.
“I thought about quitting, I thought about it real hard,” Rock quipped, before saying he kept the job because “the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart, OK?” He also said: “If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job.”
Rock pointed out that of the 88 Academy Award ceremonies to date, the overwhelming majority had snubbed black actors. In one of his darker jokes, Rock said African-Americans didn’t raise the same uproar in the past because “we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer."
Two of the most outspoken proponents of the #OscarsSoWhite boycott, actors Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, bore the brunt of many of Rock’s jokes.
“Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties, I wasn’t invited,” Rock said to raucous laughter. He went on to poke fun at Will Smith’s performance in the sports medicine drama "Concussion" and argued that his lack of nomination was no more outrageous than his $20 million paycheck for the 1999 critical dud “Wild Wild West.”
But Rock didn’t spare white Hollywood either. He said the annual In Memoriam segment would “just be black people shot by cops on their way to the movies.” And he said Hollywood was definitely “a different type" of racist.
“Hollywood is sorority racist. 'We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa,'” he joked.
Rock’s solution? Black acting categories. Rock also suggested that even the gender separation in acting categories made no sense either. He proposed a “best black friend” category which would routinely honor comedian Wanda Sykes. In one of his more earnest moments, Rock said simply: "It's not about boycotting or anything. We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities. That's it!"
Recent studies have shown that Asian, Latino and LGBT representation lags far behind even African-Americans, while women are denied as many lead roles as men and almost never score directing gigs.
At the end of his routine, Rock pivoted to the night’s first award by saying: “You want diversity, we got diversity … please welcome Emily Blunt and somebody whiter, Charlize Theron!”
Later in the broadcast, Rock and his fellow black comedic actors Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg and Leslie Jones appeared in a well-received montage where they were inserted in some of the year's predominately white Oscar-nominated films. But an onstage cameo from Fox News personality Stacey Dash, referencing her controversial anti-Black History Month diatribe from earlier this month, was a dud.
Nods to the diversity issue continued to pop up throughout the night. "And we're black," Rock said after a commercial break. Later, he introduced African-American "Creed" star Michael B. Jordan as someone who "should" have been nominated. The winners of Best Production Design, meanwhile, called their victory "the first Oscar for diversity" after name-checking the international contributors who helped make "Mad Max: Fury Road." One-time Oscar nominee Angela Bassett appeared in a satiric Black History Month segment which at first appeared to be a tribute to Will Smith, but wound up paying homage to the white actor Jack Black. And Academy of Arts & Sciences president Cheryl Boone Isaacs told the audience they have a role to play in reforming the industry, and said "it's not enough to just listen and agree, we must take action."
Rock also did a series of man-on-the-street interviews in the predominately African-American community of Compton, California, where he asked black filmgoers about this year's nominees (few had even heard of the Tom Hanks film "Bridge of Spies") which recalled a similar taped bit he did when he hosted the show for the first time in 2005:
Comedian Kevin Hart struck a sincere note when he went out of his way to applaud all the actors and actresses of color who were snubbed this year. "At the end of the day, we love what we do and we’re breaking major ground doing it," he said to a warm reception from the audience. He later cracked that he only showed up for the Oscars because he "thought for sure I was gonna get a seat in the front row" because of the diversity controversy.
Meanwhile, a number of prominent African-American filmmakers and artists, including "Creed" director Ryan Coogler, held a free benefit for the Flint community, which has been reeling from a contaminated water crisis. The benefit was streamed simultaneously as the Oscars.
"Our goal is to raise awareness and money and to promote justice for Flint," "Selma" director Ava DuVernay told MSNBC's Joy Reid on Saturday.
DuVernay dismissed the notion that the #JusticeforFlint event was meant to also be a dig at the Academy Awards. "This was a day that everyone in our collective – all the artists, all the activists who were putting this together – were available to do it."
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