Chris Rock's Oscars didn't "fight the power": A night of crude jokes and cynical deflection is a poor way to show progress

Rock's big night shows us Hollywood wants it both ways—for movies to be powerful art and blameless entertainment

Published March 1, 2016 12:00AM (EST)

Chris Rock at the Oscars, Feb. 28, 2016.   (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Chris Rock at the Oscars, Feb. 28, 2016. (AP/Chris Pizzello)

Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Of all the people disappointed by the Oscars ceremony last night, the most disappointed were the audience.

It’s a joke you can make any year, but this year is special--this is the year that all eyes were on Chris Rock to see how he’d deal with the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that became impossible to ignore once several big names boycotted the ceremony, leaving the Oscars audience an uncomfortably white crowd.

Blaming Rock as host for the Oscars’ ratings dipping to an eight-year low is, of course, nonsense. The fact that Rock announced he’d directly address the #OscarsSoWhite protests is probably the only reason many people--including myself--tuned in. God knows the ceremony’s buzz would not have been improved by a white presenter who signaled they would carefully avoid any mention of race.

What did we get? I’d like to damn the night with faint praise by saying it was “as much as we could’ve expected,” but even that wasn’t true--it was on par with what we could’ve expected, but with some glaring unforced errors.

Yes, it was amazing that Chris Rock’s monologue and his skits throughout the evening directly tackled the elephant in the room--especially the sincere, heartfelt speeches given by Kevin Hart and Alejandro Iñárritu. Rock’s sketch where he interviewed regular moviegoers in Compton--in a year when, in a textbook case of adding insult to injury, “Straight Outta Compton” received no nominations except for its white screenwriters--was a pretty sharp dig at the vast cultural chasm between the film industry as academy insiders see it and the entire universe of filmmakers and audiences the academy routinely ignores. And yes, Rock came out and said it, calling Michael B. Jordan a “should’ve-been nominee” moments before Jordan launched into his presenter speech with an admirably straight face.

And then the ceremony surprised a lot of us by earnestly and humanely addressing a topic we didn’t expect to come up, tying in the best original song nomination for “The Hunting Ground” and best picture nominations for “Room”  and “Spotlight” with a speech by Vice President Joe Biden promoting a bystander-intervention pledge.

The subsequent Lady Gaga performance of “Til It Happens to You” with real-life survivors of sexual assault onstage was the highlight of the evening and, arguably, the highlight of the past 10 years’ worth of Academy Awards ceremony performances. Even with the looming controversy over the bias in who got nominated it was impossible to be cynical about Brie Larson winning best actress after the moving scene of her hugging survivors as they left the stage.

The ceremony broke through the cynical shell we’ve all built up while watching these things multiple times that evening. Pete Docter’s simple “Make stuff” advice to children when receiving his award for “Inside Out.” Louis C.K.’s intro for the best documentary short category reminding us about the world of filmmakers who barely see a cent of Big Hollywood money but do the work for the chance to tell untold stories. The always tear-jerking In Memoriam montage hitting doubly hard in the year we lost Leonard Nimoy and Alan Rickman. (Who didn’t instantly tear up at hearing the famous line from “The Wrath of Khan”?)

And of course the evening culminated with an underdog best picture win for “Spotlight,” a meta example of a film that wasn’t just about social issues but about the power of the media when it chooses to take an active role in addressing social issues. Insecure journalists wrestling with doubts over the future of the profession collectively swooned at the acceptance speech.

This year they even improved basic things like the ordering of the categories to emphasize the progression from screenplay to shooting to finished film and the construction of the clips packages for the technical categories to show how sound mixing or cinematography is as important to a film as the director and actors. It was a much-welcomed injection of relevance into awards that had previously felt like filler while we were waiting for the acting, directing and best picture highlights.

So why did so much else go so horribly wrong? Why, with such a push from some corners to get past old-guard Hollywood elitism and cynicism and talk about how important movies can be to people in the real world, did old-guard elitism and cynicism mount such a stirring resurgence?

The stage was set with Chris Rock’s opening monologue, which, while it certainly directly addressed the #OscarsSoWhite issue, made two breathtakingly tone-deaf arguments in quick succession: One, that the Oscars (and representation in entertainment media in general) is really not that big a deal, and two, the reason people are making a stink about it now is that we are no longer dealing with things that are big deals, like the actual violence and murder protested by the 1960s civil rights movement.

This was an incredibly stupid thing to say. The fact that #OscarsSoWhite has trended in tandem with its preceding sister hashtag #BlackLivesMatter isn’t exactly subtle to anyone who’s ever glanced at so-called Black Twitter. (Which Rock clearly has, given his much-appreciated last-minute shout-out to #BlackLivesMatter at the end of the ceremony.) A #BlackLivesMatter documentary addressing the violence and murder going on in the streets right now was commissioned by HBO as a direct result of the uncomfortable negative attention #OscarsSoWhite put on the film industry.

Acting like caring about day-to-day violence in the streets and the impact media and culture have on that violence are somehow mutually exclusive -- a common, frustrating, tired argument anyone who talks about racism in media will inevitably see dozens of times in the comments section -- ignores history.

It ignores the many, many arguments that have been made about how the excuses made for the deaths of Trayvon Martin and Mike Brown frequently come verbatim from untrue stereotypes out of TV and movies, how the only way Darren Wilson’s description of Brown as a “demon” who was “bulking up to get through the bullets” could possibly make sense to anyone is after a lifetime of media portrayals of the scary superhuman black man. It ignores Martin Luther King going out of his way to call Nichelle Nichols and tell her not to quit "Star Trek" because having a black woman on TV who wasn’t a domestic servant mattered. It ignores the ongoing civil rights protests around the Oscars back in the 1960s and '70s, including Marlon Brando making history as the first and only best actor winner to boycott the ceremony, sending American Indian Movement activist Sacheen Littlefeather to accept the award in his place.

It ignores the fact that at the very moment Chris Rock was talking, there was a “Justice for Flint” fundraiser going on in protest of the Oscars, hosted by two black prominent filmmakers snubbed for best director nods who used #OscarsSoWhite to bring attention to the cause of a predominantly black community whose water was literally poisoned.

As though to compound the tone-deafness of ignoring the existence of an event that, by existing, pretty much destroyed every single point Rock made in his monologue, Rock went on to make a joke out of doing his own fundraising among the millionaires in his audience for his daughter’s Girl Scout troop -- a cute joke, yes, but a joke that’s only remotely funny if you’d never heard of the “Justice for Flint” fundraiser going on at the same time or somehow put it entirely out of your mind.

Then, as now, the academy wants to have its cake and eat it too. When people talk about the immense positive impact art and culture can have on people’s lives, when “The Hunting Ground” starts a national conversation on sexual assault that goes all the way up to the White House, the academy milks it for all it’s worth.

But when it’s time to address the other side of the coin, how art and culture is just as, if not more, often a negative force in the world, taking existing prejudices and misunderstandings and hatreds and making them worse for a bigger box office gross, suddenly, hey, it’s just entertainment and we’re all taking it too seriously and the controversy is mostly good for a laugh.

How else do you explain the bizarre decision to trot Stacey Dash out for a quick non-joke of a joke segment, other than to make light of the massive backlash to her dismissive remarks about Black History Month and #OscarsSoWhite and paint it as no big deal?

And then of course there’s the incredibly gratuitous joke where Chris Rock brought three kids onstage as the Asian (and Jewish?) “accountants from Price Waterhouse Cooper,” apparently just to troll the audience.

What even is the joke here? Is it that thanks to stereotyping most audiences think of Asian-Americans’ involvement in the film industry, if we have any at all, as being corporate bean counters with no creative talent? Is the joke that this stereotype gets thrust on us starting when we’re in grade school and leads to a lifetime of our being thought of as socially awkward childlike dorks? (As an aside, when trying to think of an East Asian speaking character in an Oscar-nominated film this year the best I could come up with was “The Big Short” making that exact same joke with Ryan Gosling’s quant.) Is it a “meta” joke about how the fact that racism complaints always focus on black people vs. white people makes people think jokes about other people of color is OK?

Nah, it was a meta joke about how complaining about nasty jokes about Asians on TV is no big deal when there are exploited Asian child laborers in the world. Just like, apparently, whether or not there’s a black officer on the Enterprise is irrelevant when people are being lynched.

That was crap. It was especially crap coming immediately after Chris Rock’s vox-populi interviews in Compton where a random man on the street stood up for solidarity between all people of color.

It was even crappier after Sacha Baron Cohen brought back Ali G--one of the least-asked-for character resurrections of all time--to double down on the edgy humor with a similar ha-ha-I-offended-you bait-and-switch joke comparing Asians to the Minions. Which was only a prelude to Baron Cohen undercutting any semblance of respect the ceremony had given to real-life issues by introducing “Room” as a movie about a “roomful of white people” (while Olivia Wilde just stood there in awkward silence).

The whole night was like that, every moment of genuine emotion undercut by crappy jokes intended to remind us not to take any of it too seriously. Everything good about this year’s Oscars was heavily intermixed with the Oscars’ traditional ham fists and tin ear.

The orchestra comes in for special acknowledgment for its seemingly-random but often-unfortunate musical cues: Why play on Kevin Hart with the theme from “Beverly Hills Cop”? Why play on Julianne Moore with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson”?

Why make the “play them off” theme song be Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries,” an especially cringeworthy choice when the person you’re playing off directed a film about the Holocaust? Why rigidly adhere to your 45-second speech limit to play off Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy while she was in the middle of talking about how her film literally changed the law about so-called honor killings in Pakistan? Why do that immediately after Louis C.K. brought up the painful fact that unlike all the movie stars and millionaires in the room, the chance to speak up about these issues is the only reward filmmakers like Obaid-Chinoy get?

The impression I got from the ceremony was of an Oscars that was forced, kicking and screaming by a wave of controversy, into acknowledging that this year’s ceremony simply could not be business as usual while still awkwardly, cringily trying to be business as usual whenever they could manage it. It was a ceremony that let Kevin Hart make a heartfelt, unscripted speech but ran panicking to cut his mic when they were afraid he might be about to cuss.

The most confusing and frustrating musical choice of the night didn’t come from the orchestra--it was the choice to play Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” to open and close the show. Was it a sincere nod by Chris Rock to ongoing frustrations with big movie studios and the suits who run Hollywood? Or was it a snarky jab at the idea that awards shows and movie stars matter at all when there are “real issues” to address? Or, to take a third option, was it a kind of cry for help from Rock himself, a world-weary sigh at the impossibility of actually addressing how screwed up the nature of the Academy Awards are while still agreeing to host them?

Who knows. Given the tenor of the evening, the ambiguity was most likely deliberate. And whoever OK’d that decision was probably as ill-versed in the history of the Oscars as Sam Smith revealed himself to be last night.

“Fight the Power,” after all, originated from “Do the Right Thing,” a movie that, like “Straight Outta Compton,” got a screenwriting nod but no nod for best director or best picture, and that, like “Creed,” got a best supporting actor nomination for the one prominent white character in the film (Danny Aiello as Sal) but no nod for the black lead.

Like “Creed,” and “Straight Outta Compton,” “Do the Right Thing” didn’t actually win anything. “Fight the Power” itself wasn’t even nominated for best original song that year, which was won by “Under the Sea” from “The Little Mermaid.” (I’ll leave music historians to debate which of those two songs had a greater cultural impact in the end). Best picture that year was “Driving Miss Daisy,” a touching and inspiring film about a black man working as a domestic servant to a white lady.

That was in 1989, 27 years ago; the little golden statuette Daniel Day-Lewis got instead of Morgan Freeman for best actor that year is the same age as Taylor Swift.

How much has really changed since then? Well, now we’re talking about it and making jokes about it and playing a recording of “Fight the Power” at the show (even if it’s still impossible to imagine it being played onstage or any song like it winning an award--and no, the fact that “Lose Yourself” and “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” are hip-hop songs does not make them the same kind of song). Chris Rock making jokes about race--even bad, infuriating, point-missing jokes--is a step up from the “good old days” of “Uma, Oprah” vapidity.

But this is a really poor showing for a quarter-century’s worth of progress. Chuck D’s reaction to his song being used says it best: “The point of the song is a call to making change eventually, not just applauding the thought.” The song is called “Fight the Power,” not “Mock the Power,” and especially not “Gently Poke Fun at the Power While Shrugging That In the End It’s No Big Deal.”

By Arthur Chu

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