Chris Rock has run out of fucks to give. His new movie, Top Five, debuted with a bang at the Toronto Film Festival, igniting a fierce bidding war for distribution — won by Paramount Pictures, which ponied up $12.5 million, more than twice the picture’s production budget. Reviews for the picture, which Rock wrote, directed, and starred in, were rhapsodic; they called it his Stardust Memories. And maybe it’s that position of confidence that’s prompted him, in a flurry of interviews and op-eds, to ravenously bite the hand that feeds him, calling out the movie industry for its intellectual hypocrisy and institutional racism. It’s rather thrilling to watch this razor-sharp celebrity call bullshit, consequences be damned; it’s also a reminder that even the most ostensibly liberal environments are a long way from sunny, “post-racial” America (as if we needed any more reminders of that this week/month/year/etc).
“I’m selling a movie,” he tells Grantland. “And I don’t do press unless I’ve got a movie coming out. Like literally, why would I do press?” True enough — but it’s become very clear that early on, Rock decided that the press he’s doing wasn’t going to focus solely on the film. He had plenty to say about it in his already legendary New York interview, but the takeaways from that piece are his thoughts on race and politics. Over the past couple of days, that Grantland interview, an equally candid Q&A with Rolling Stone, and (most of all) a scorching essay on “Hollywood’s third rail” for The Hollywood Reporter have followed suit. All are, as you’d expect, funny and wise, but they also add up to a provocative and rather depressing report from the trenches.
And by “the trenches,” I mean someone who’s dealing, on a daily basis, with the kind of resistance and homogeny we despair over every time a new report on diversity in Hollywood rolls out. “It’s a white industry,” he writes in THR. “Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is.” The studies and statistics tell us the woefully limited number of people of color with speaking roles or sitting in the director’s chair, but the root of that problem is an institutional one: the even more limited number of people of color in positions to hire them. Or, as Rock puts it, “the person who runs the black division of a studio should probably have worked with black people at some point in their life.”
And what makes the situation so frustrating is that it’s all happening in a city that gives lip service to equality — but won’t put its money where its mouth is. Rock writes about a deleted scene where Kevin Hart, as Rock’s agent, lays it out thus: “I’m the only black agent here. They never invite me to anything, and these people are liberals. This isn’t the Klan.” And thus we have the question of which brand of racism is more insidious — that of the Confederate-flag waving, slur-spouting redneck who wears the badge of racism with pride but has no actual power, or that of power-holders and lever-pullers that would never, in their wildest dreams, classify themselves as racist, yet preside over industries and institutions that routinely deny opportunities, agency, and (yes, let’s say it) justice to people of color? “It’s the most liberal town in the world,” Rock writes, “and there’s a part of it that’s kind of racist — not racist like ‘Fuck you, nigger’ racist, but just an acceptance that there’s a slave state in L.A. There’s this acceptance that Mexicans are going to take care of white people in L.A. that doesn’t exist anywhere else.”
And this is where he really gets cooking:
You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot. And it’s not about being given a shot to greenlight a movie because nobody is going to give you that — you’ve got to take that. The shot is that a Mexican guy or a black guy is qualified to go and give his opinion about how loud the boings are in Dodgeball or whether it’s the right shit sound you hear when Jeff Daniels is on the toilet in Dumb and Dumber. It’s like, “We only let white people do that.” This is a system where only white people can chime in on that. There would be a little naivete to sitting around and going, “Oh, no black person has ever greenlighted a movie,” but those other jobs? You’re kidding me, right? They don’t even require education. When you’re on the lower levels, they’re just about taste, nothing else. And you don’t have to go to Harvard to have taste.
And as a result, it’s left for someone like Rock — for whom, by his own admission, filmmaking has never been a “key ambition” — to make the kind of movies he can’t just sit around and wait for someone else to make. “If someone was going to hand me something like Top Five, I’d be more than happy to act in it,” he tells Rolling Stone. “But I’ve got arty taste, which is great and not great at the same time. I’d rather work with Wes Anderson, but I don’t look like Owen Wilson. I’d love to work with Alexander Payne and Richard Linklater. But they don’t really do those movies with black people that much. So you gotta make your own.” Black actors, he notes in THR, are “never on the ‘short list.’ We’re never ‘in the mix’… It was never like, ‘Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for Fifty Shades of Grey?” And you know, black people fuck, too.” Not that women of color have it any easier; “I can go a month and not see a black woman having an actual speaking part in a movie,” he writes, a point he expands on at Grantland. His Top Five co-star Rosario is “one of the most beautiful women in the fucking world, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen her in a romantic comedy. Never seen her with a guy in a romance, ever. What the fuck is that?”
What’s exhilarating about Rock’s recent media blitz is that he’s doing, in the loudest possible voice, what Hollywood likes least: making it uncomfortable about itself. It’s an industry that takes pride in making films that attempt to right the wrongs of the past, while ignoring those of the present—and as long as those who work there are okay with doing so, that’s how things will stay. Pushing 50, his legacy established, a critical and presumably commercial success in the wings, Chris Rock is saying fuck that. And it’s important for people who are handed a microphone, put in front of a tape recorder, and given a forum to say fuck that—especially right now, at a moment when the consequences of deeply embedded racial bias are literally life and death.
Does the lack of diversity on- and off-screen in television and film have the same stakes the hair-trigger decision-making of law enforcement, prosecutors, and juries in Oakland, Seminole County, Beavercreek, Ferguson, Cleveland, and Staten Island? Of course not — on the surface. But representation matters. The images we see in popular culture pump into our subconscious and inform our prejudices, and as entertainment blogger Tamara Brooks notes, when the only images of non-white people are “as violent or cannon fodder for the white lead, always tertiary, not even secondary, it creates an unfortunate echo chamber, forever enforcing stereotypes and never seeing non-white people as actual people. They’re footnotes at best.” Rock’s not just talking about Hollywood. He’s talking about America. And he’s right: fuck that.