Let’s cut right to the chase: Chris Rock’s hosting performance at last night’s Oscars, his second stint ever and first in over a decade, was decidedly uneven.
But as Rock himself said of last night’s 800-pound-gorilla-sitting-on-an-elephant-standing-on-top-of-a-whale in the room, that’s probably happened more often than not in the Academy Awards’ 88-year history. Hosting a major awards ceremony is a near-impossible task that’s left some of the best entertainers of our time struggling — including, by some accounts, Rock himself the first time around. A host has to flatter their in-house audience’s self-seriousness while puncturing it for the audience at home, not to mention fulfill the rather utilitarian task of ushering things along while crafting, and landing, actual jokes the whole time. And even when a host manages to pull it all off, as Andy Samberg’s turn at this year’s Emmys showed, a poor reception in the theater itself can suck the air right out of a commendable performance.
The difference this time, with both Rock’s hosting gig and the ceremony in general, was in the expectations. But as the New York Times’ James Poniewozik pointed out, great comedians love nothing more than defying expectations, making Rock’s particular take on #OscarsSoWhite seem, in retrospect, inevitable.
Controversy turned what was already a tightrope of a job into a double-edged sword: Rock had more than enough fuel for his trademark combination of acute observational humor and razor-sharp social commentary, but — thanks to his immediate audience — couldn’t quite go for the jugular in the way that some viewers, this one included, hoped and honestly thought he would.
So we got a mixed bag of an opening monologue, one that combined genuine jaw-droppers (“Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa!'”) with some badly misdirected punchlines (“We had real things to protest at the time” — an awkward moment not because of the joke itself as much as the uncomfortably loud applause the Academy gave a crack that effectively exonerated it from criticism). It felt equally telling that Rock opted to gently rib Jada Pinkett Smith, a woman who had been rather vocal about why she was not in the room, when Charlotte Rampling was sitting right there — and that an Oscar host said, point blank, that black and white actors deserve the same set of opportunities just a year after Neil Patrick Harris was content to laugh off diversity issues with a single one-liner.
The rest of the night continued on a similarly uneven keel. There was a heavy reliance on filmed interstitials, which ranged from the fun but harmless (dedicating a “Black History Month Minute” to… Jack Black) to the pitch-perfect (my personal vote for couple of the night goes to The Revenant and Leslie Jones’ Hulk-scream). But, as with Jones’ current and Rock’s former workplace, even when pre-recorded bits are going well, their dominance in what’s theoretically a live show is always worrisome. On the other hand — see what I mean by uneven? — there was the surprise appearance of Stacey Dash, a multilayered joke that could and did go over the audience’s heads, not to mention Dash’s own. Rock may have occasionally played to the room with flattery disguised as mockery disguised as a Girl Scout cookie flash sale for the rich and famous, but Dash’s appearance did something even more daring than lampooning the Academy — it straight-up ignored it.
It was a point driven further home by Rock’s man-on-the-street interviews outside a Compton theater: when Hollywood pretends black audiences don’t exist, black audiences are simply going to return the favor. I’m sympathetic to those, some of my colleagues included, who chafed at the implication that great movies aren’t for “normal” people or worried viewers would misinterpret the joke as being directed at the black moviegoers who’d never heard of Brooklyn. Still, I think Rock’s point survived intact — that Hollywood’s output sends a message non-white audiences hear loud and clear.
Still, the person who ultimately gave the #OscarsSoWhite speech so many wanted to hear wasn’t the host. It was Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who commandeered a spot typically reserved for two minutes of back patting to make a bona fide call to change: “Our audiences are global and rich in diversity, and every facet of our industry should be as well… Each of you is an ambassador who can influence others in the industry. It’s not enough to just listen and agree; we must take action.”
As the female, African-American head of an organization that’s overwhelmingly white and male, Isaacs is by no means in an easy position. In some ways, however, she was in an easier, or at least more ideal, position than Rock to put the festivities on momentary pause. Not only was she under no obligation to soften the blow with humor, but Isaacs was also in a position to speak on behalf of as well as to the Academy. It remains to be seen whether membership changes, among other initiatives, will have any material effect on future fields of nominees, let alone winners. But the symbolic value of the Academy’s public face validating and even encouraging serious criticism is real.
On balance, Chris Rock did a better job of addressing and incorporating #OscarsSoWhite than any other host could have. (Black Lives Matter endorsements are hopefully here to stay, but I doubt we’ll hear “Fight the Power” on ABC primetime again for a long, long time.) Still, his obligations as MC, not to mention to his Dolby Theatre audience, necessarily prevented him from delivering a message as focused and serious as Isaacs’. #OscarsSoWhite still dominated the night — just from a different angle than expected.