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The Oscars Featured a Bunch of White People Laughing at Racism

Chris Rock and the Academy brought race issues to center stage last night. Things got awkward, but were they awkward enough?

Chris Rock during his opening monologue at the 88th Oscars® at the Dolby® Theatre in Hollywood, California, on February 28, 2016. Photo by Aaron Poole/©A.M.P.A.S./courtesy of the Academy

In the lead-up to this year's Oscars, much interest focused on how Chris Rock would address the Academy's obvious—and self-acknowledged—diversity problem. Last night's ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in LA was a case study in the limits of self-awareness. The glitzy glad-handing and innate absurdity of the event, broadcasted to millions worldwide, was always going to make any sort of genuine impact unlikely, but the Academy proved beyond a doubt that it at least has a sense of humor about its glaring shortcomings.


Rock, of course, found himself in the awkward position of being expected by many to stick it to the man while standing onstage in the man's house with the man's money in his pockets. Clad in a sharp white tux, Rock strode out to the sounds of Public Enemy's anthem "Fight the Power," the song's juddering force immediately defanged by the vanilla surroundings.

He began by addressing the evening as the "White People's Choice Awards" before moving into edgier territory, wondering aloud why the #OscarsSoWhite outrage is happening now, and why it didn't happen in the 1950s and 60s. His answer? Because back then, "we was too busy being raped and lynched… When your grandmother's hanging from a tree, you don't care about best documentary foreign short." It was bold of Rock to summon up such charged imagery, but it was tone deaf given the ongoing problem of police brutality and the violent deaths of people like Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland. It also felt like an unwise trivialization of the very real struggles past generations of black actors had experienced: consider Gone with the Wind 's Hattie McDaniel, forced to sit at a segregated table for two at the 1940 Oscars.

Moments later, however, Rock attempted to redress the balance by chancing a bleak crack about how this year's "In Memoriam" package would simply feature "black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies." Rock aimed cutting, catty jibes at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith's non-attendance, then came out and said the magic words, "Yes, Hollywood is racist… in a 'sorority' way," thus identifying the smiling, non-hostile racism that can, and does, fester within ostensibly progressive circles, i.e., everyone in the audience and many at home.


Following a couple of great jokes, including one about Paul Giamatti's acting range (from "whupping Lupita in 12 Years a Slave to crying at Eazy-E 's funeral" in the space of one year), and a weak one dismissing the #AskHerMore anti-sexism movement, Rock's opening monologue led into a short package of sub-Hollywood Shuffle parodies riffing on the limited roles afforded to black actors. The most eye-catching was Tracey Morgan's transformation into a burly, pastry-munching iteration of The Danish Girl ("These Danishes is good though!") These skits were tame, but their satirical aim was clear enough, as was Angela Bassett's grimly amusing "Black History Minute" tribute to Jack Black.

Far harder to parse was the surreal appearance of Stacey Dash—Clueless star, rabidly right-wing Fox pundit, and Black History Month abolitionist—whom Rock announced as the new director of the Academy's "minority outreach program." Awkwardly positioned at the side of the stage and sporting a rictus grin, Dash boomed: "I cannot wait to help my people out. Happy Black History Month!" For anyone unaware of Dash's outspoken political affiliations, the joke wouldn't have seemed like a joke at all—rather a bizarre wheeling-out of a has-been actress. For those in the know—like this author—it was still a little baffling: Was Dash self-satirizing? And if so, why? Either way, it was a welcome impenetrable moment in a mostly predictable evening.


One troublingly persistent theme, however, was Rock 's insistence on framing the #OscarsSoWhite debate as a solely black and white issue, thus undermining the idea of "inclusivity" promoted in an upbeat speech by Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. For example, it took roughly two hours before any reference to the absence of Asian and Latino acting nominees was made. Matters weren't helped by a misguided stereotype gag involving three palpably confused Asian kids being introduced to the stage by Rock as "future accountants," or the reappearance of Sacha Baron Cohen's dated Ali G character, whose joke about "hardworking little yellow people with tiny dongs" (he was referring to minions, geddit?) was the evening's clear nadir. Ironic racism is still racism, and when it's dispensed by a moneyed insider at an event with minimal Asian representation, it's that much worse. Speaking of inclusivity, it's worth mentioning that being white didn't protect transgender musician Ahnoni from not being invited to perform despite being nominated for best song ("Manta Ray," from Racing Extinction ).

Elsewhere, there was the small matter of the awards themselves. Despite the near-total lack of color in the nominations and awards—notable exceptions were The Revenant 's Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu and Pakistani director Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy—there was an almost insulting bounty of color when it came to handing out the prizes. Chadwick Boseman, Pharrell Williams, Abraham Attah, Benicio del Toro, Priyanka Chopra, Michael B. Jordan, Common, John Legend, Quincy Jones, Dev Patel, Morgan Freeman, and more were all trotted out to bestow glory. This situation echoed that of the red carpet, on which almost all the interviewers and correspondents were either women, people of color, or both.

Some other political issues came up, giving this year's Oscars a markedly topical feel. Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan, keeping it real in a leather jacket and scarf combo, spoke up on climate change, as did best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio. VP Joe Biden popped up briefly alongside Lady Gaga to rail against rape culture. Sam Smith, winner of the Oscar for best song for his caterwauling Bond theme "Writing's on the Wall," erroneously stated that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar, before paying tribute to the international LGBT community. And Iñárritu, who won best director for the second year running, used his speech to make a well-intentioned but cringeworthy plea for color blindness: May "the color of our skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair," he said as strains of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries—this year's hilariously ill-considered "get off the stage" music—built steam behind him.

Ultimately, though, this was Rock's show. Intermittently, he channeled the discomfiting straight talk of Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, who spoke at the Oscars in 1977 and 1988, respectively, about industry racism. Mostly, though, he refrained to go for the jugular, jabbing instead at issues that run far deeper and wider than a glitzy awards night, or even an industry that seeks to address its problems by pointing and then laughing at them.

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