“White People Were Crazy. Now They’re Not As Crazy”: Chris Rock Has a Valuable Perspective on Race in America

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Chris Rock’s new movie, Top Five, premiered at the 2014 Toronto Film Festival to utterly charmed reviews (The Guardian called it “winning”) and the promo that comes with winning the festival buzz by landing the splashiest distribution deal. A meta-comedy about a very famous comedian (Rock) who spends the day giving an interview to a New York Times reporter (Rosario Dawson), the film is small, indie, and Woody Allen-ish, according to Rock.

However, the film’s imminent release on December 12th is a reason for Rock to give grand old man interviews where he’s not really promoting the film that hard — it seems a bit like Before Sunrise? But I don’t really know? — and more talking about life. As befitting a man who’s been a zeitgeist-busting comedian for twenty years, Rock has a lot of interesting things to say. There was a profile in The New Yorker which put Rock in the pantheon of comic royalty, and now New York Magazine has run a wonderful Q&A with him, conducted by Frank Rich.

Part of what makes Rich’s Q&A so good is that Rock’s speaking the truth about a plethora of subjects. Nothing’s off the table. And he makes it clear that it’s a comedian’s priority: “We always say ignorance is bliss. Well, if so, what’s the opposite? Some form of misery. Being a comedian, 80 percent of the job is just you notice shit, which is a trait of schizophrenics too. You notice things people don’t notice.”

And noticing things, especially the things that people can’t and won’t talk about, can lead to pain, as Rock says regarding Robin Williams’ tragic suicide earlier this year. It’s been a tough year for comedy, as legends have passed away (Joan Rivers) or have been mired in enough controversy that they’re essentially gone (Bill Cosby), but it’s clear that Rock — even if he’s past the point of being youthful, cool, and dangerous — still has some trenchant observations to make on where we are today as a society, politically and racially.

He describes our feelings of disappointment with our president, Barack Obama, perfectly. Obama’s trying to appeal to everyone, like Les Moonves, the president of CBS. We’re naturally disappointed because Obama came in looking like a genius, whereas George W. Bush came in with low expectations: “People thinking you’re dumb is an advantage,” Rock says. He also calls Bush our first “cable-television president,” as he came into office and only pandered to his small audience.

Rock also has a clear-eyed take on racism in America today. He’s somewhat optimistic, as the state of things has changed in his lifetime. “When we talk about race relations in America or racial progress, it’s all nonsense. There are no race relations. White people were crazy. Now they’re not as crazy. To say that black people have made progress would be to say they deserve what happened to them before.”

According to Rock, signs of “progress,” like Obama’s election, are just really a case of white people being nicer and realizing that it’s okay to elect the brilliant black politician, instead of reflexively going for the old white guy. That is something like progress, but it is in no way “post-racial,” as that’s been proven to be utter horseshit in the last eight years.

Our conversations about race in this country — when we even have these conversations — are tense and hyperbolic things. It’s hard to separate the truth from the egos and jockeying, particularly in a 24-hour news cycle where everyone needs to have a take and an argument but it boils down to talk and not real change.

Right now, Rock is in a place where he can set your mind spinning with his smart and true observations, whether it’s how race plays in America or how the press and liberals approach the topic of race. When it comes to race, Rock’s pitching a bit of an “it gets better concept,” small comfort in difficult times — and he’s absolutely right in pointing out that what we see, condescendingly, as “progress” is just the status quo getting less dickish. Maybe it can continue. But it feels slow sometimes.

Rock’s Top Five press push has been a fascinating grand old man tour, where we’re reminded that Rock notices things, and he notices the things we’re afraid to talk about: suicide, Ferguson, the media, racism, politics. The entirety of the interview is worth your time, and it’s because even in a conversation, Rock has a way to cut through life’s absurdities with his well-honed wit and one perfect sentence.