Chris Rock opened the 88th Academy Awards on ABC tonight with a bang, addressing diversity amongst the nominees pointedly and at times, brilliantly. Rock was called on to quit his hosting gig for the ceremony from some observers after the all-white list of nominees was announced by the Academy. The resulting #OscarsSoWhite conversation pushed Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith as well as Spike Lee to publicly boycott the event.
In his monologue, Rock explained why he didn’t duck out—taking the time to joke, first, that Jada Pinkett Smith boycotting the Oscars was like he himself boycotting Rihanna’s panties ("I wasn't invited!"). But really, he said, “this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times,” and the reason it hadn’t come up before was because African-Americans had “real things to protest at the time.”
We were “too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer,” Rock said.“When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
Lynching is not an easy topic for a stand-up monologue, and it’s a testament to Rock’s courageous candor that he can tackle diversity, white privilege, a violent history of slavery and oppression, and the relative value of nominees of color in about 15 minutes of monologue. Rock joked—with even more gallows humor than the lynching bit—that the Academy’s “In Memoriam” segment should just feature the black kids who got shot on the way to the movies.
The audience of, well, mostly rich white people were stunned into awkward laughter and clearly were confused about when and how to laugh. Rock made fun of the cushy Hollywood audience, but he made fun of black people, and also roped in some really serious political issues. It wasn’t an easy monologue; it was uncomfortable, thorny, and one of the most shocking segments the typically inoffensive Oscars have ever produced.
Rock didn’t stop there. Immediately after the first award, a pre-taped bit featured Tracy Morgan, Whoopi Goldberg, and Rock himself as black performers trying to insert themselves into some of this year’s Best Picture nominees. Tracy Morgan ate a Danish, while wearing lipstick, and declared himself “The Danish Girl,” while Goldberg mopped the floor as Jennifer Lawrence —the titular lead of “Joy” — struggled to market her mop.
And in a joke that fell flat with the in-house audience—except for performer and nominee The Weeknd, who was either so shocked or embarrassed that he was spotted covering an shocked laugh with one hand—actress Stacey Dash, who derided the Oscar boycott on Fox News in January, was declared by Rock to be the Academy’s new outreach coordinator. She trotted out to wish everyone, in syrupy tones, a “Happy Black History Month.”
Rock ended his monologue by declaring the Oscars to be not “burning cross racist” or “fetch me some lemonade” racist but “sorority racist,” artfully defining the tribalism of Hollywood while observing that the crowd made up some of the most well-meaning, nicest white people around. It was a monologue meant to make the establishment feel shamed, but not too shamed, while feeling a part of something that could make the problem increasingly better. It was also blisteringly funny. (“’Rocky’ takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes. ‘Rocky’ is a science-fiction movie.”) Either way, it started the conversation off by identifying every sore point and shining a huge light on it, and for these Oscars, that’s just the right place to begin.