LOS ANGELES — Oscars host Chris Rock earned some of his biggest kudos on Sunday for journeying all the way from Hollywood to a Compton movie theater to interview black moviegoers about this year’s #OscarsSoWhite nominees.
But Rock wasn’t in Compton. He filmed the interviews much closer to Hollywood, seven miles from the Dolby Theater, in another predominantly African-American neighborhood in southwest L.A. that’s much closer than Compton and a lot more developed.
So while most didn’t realize it, Oscar viewers didn’t meet the colorful moviegoers of Compton, which is farther east and has no movie theater of its own. They met the moviegoers of Crenshaw/Baldwin Hills—a neighborhood bordered by a predominantly black neighborhood known as “the black Beverly Hills.”
The joke’s premise was that the Academy Awards was so white that the average African-American theater patron in Compton had no vested interest or awareness of this year’s movies. You know, Compton—the South Central neighborhood white folks surely heard of this year thanks to N.W.A and Universal’s hit (but still snubbed in most categories) biopic Straight Outta Compton.
The bit went viral and earned Rock praise for playing a part in helping him really give it to Hollywood and the well-heeled crowd in attendance—at least, as much as he dared to. “For Better Or Worse, Chris Rock Made The Oscars As Black As He Possibly Could,” crowed one headline that counted the movie theater segment, Rock’s just barely squeeze-in #BlackLivesMatter shoutout, those Suge Knight gags, and his black Girl Scouts-selling-cookies-to-celebs shenanigans as ways in which the comedian fought the powers that be.
Rock even posted an extended version of the bit to his Twitter packed with even more gags of unsuspecting “Compton” moviegoers not knowing anything about this year’s Oscars, like who and what the hell Cate Blanchett, Meryl Streep, Bridge Of Spies, Joy, and Trumbo were—but to be fair, most of America still doesn’t know what Trumbo is.
Granted, the distinction between Baldwin Hills and Compton won’t mean much to most non-Angelenos, although the extension of the Metro line and plans to build out an upscale shopping corridor and turn it into the “next Glendale Americana” has locals expecting economic growth and, inevitably, gentrification.
But using one non-white neighborhood to stand in for another for the sake of a joke about the sharp socioeconomic and cultural divide within a major American city falls pretty much in line with Sunday’s Oscars telecast and its halfhearted, half-assed attempt to hold the establishment accountable for its diversity problem.
(I hear you, Hispanic and Latino and Native American and LGBT and every other kind of Oscar watchers who didn’t see yourselves repped onscreen at what one Oscars show producer promised would be the “most diverse Oscars ever.” I see you, little Asian child actor who tried desperately to hit your mark even when Rock was done using you as a prop for a joke.)
Only keen-eyed viewers seemed to notice that Rock was standing outside the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15, a well-trafficked Cinemark chain outpost that anchors a sprawling shopping mall at the corner of Crenshaw and Martin Luther King, Jr. Last month, the same theater hosted the annual Pan-African Film Festival. Two weeks ago, the stars of WGN’s upcoming drama Underground made a promo appearance at the adjoining mall.
A mall employee confirmed to The Daily Beast Monday that Rock and his crew had set up outside the Rave 15 last week around dusk, but said he had no idea what they were filming or that it ended up broadcast to 34.3 million on Oscars Sunday: “I didn’t watch it,” he shrugged.
I’m told the shoot had been cleared with mall management, but it’s unclear if they were aware the segment would deliberately misrepresent the location as Compton. A representative on behalf of Baldwin Hills Crenshaw released the following statement to The Daily Beast (bold is theirs):“We were happy to host Chris Rock at Baldwin Hills Crenshaw for the taping of a segment that was broadcast at the Oscars. We would welcome the chance to host him again and better acquaint him with the Crenshaw corridor, located in the City of Los Angeles.”
Around the mall on Monday, few had actually watched the Oscars. Some deliberately did not. “I was boycotting—sorry!” said one woman.
I met Marvin R. Williams and Anthony Stephens, both African-American men, sitting on a bench in the sunshine outside the Rave 15. Neither had tuned in on Sunday. Williams caught part of Rock’s monologue later. Stephens said he purposefully did not watch the Oscars, in solidarity with the #OscarsSoWhite boycott. “I don’t watch anything all white,” he said. “I just couldn’t.”
Williams, who turned out to be a knowledgeable movie buff given to rattling off historic Oscar trivia, firmly called out the Oscars: “The Academy is racist.”
“I think the Academy is very political, aside from it being very racist,” said Williams. “I’m sure many of those whites consider themselves liberal. But if they’re so liberal… why was the movie The Butler, which was an excellent film and dealt with the civil rights movement and African Americans, not nominated—for anything?”
“Make no mistake about it, when black people are saying ‘black people,’ we mean people of color,” he said. “If you’re not white, it includes you! And don’t get me wrong, there has been some progress made. Some. But there’s not enough diversity as there should be in this part of the 21st century. Hattie McDaniel in 1940 broke the glass ceiling when she won, and was the first woman of color to win for Gone with the Wind.”
Williams paused. “They really couldn’t have me on television,” he roared, laughing. “Chris Rock doesn’t come close to my position! I would have said, ‘ALL of you are racist. Every white person in here is racist, I don’t care how liberal you think you are.’ The difference is they all don’t choose to be extreme in their racism. It’s deeply rooted in the psyche.”
“I wonder why Will Smith didn’t get nominated,” Stephens volunteered. Williams concurred, lamenting the lack of Oscar recognition for Concussion, which he thought was “excellent.” Smith would probably agree.
Neither men had caught up with Rock’s Compton movie theater bit, so I pulled it up on my phone to show them. They began watching the Oscars segment, smiling at the sight of Rock, microphone in hand, standing in front of the façade of the very theater where they were sitting.
Williams did a double take. “Did he say that was in Compton?”
Still, they cracked up at every line Rock delivered. Afterward both men forgave Rock for his Compton bait-and-switch, because, well, he’s Chris Rock. “That’s OK,” Williams said. “Chris could have said either Compton, or South Central. I understand why he did it.”
Stephens, nevertheless, had no regrets about missing the Oscars. He hopes next year the Academy Awards finds films to honor that reflect an audience that he feels includes him. Maybe then he’ll tune in.
“I’m important, too,” he said. “I’m a human being. That’s all it is.”