Months from now, it’s likely that most people will not remember which film won Best Picture, or which of the 20 white actors held Oscar trophies at the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday night.
But years from now, Chris Rock’s monologue addressing #OscarsSoWhite will continue to be legend.
Wearing—quite pointedly—a white tuxedo jacket, Rock did what so many of us were waiting for him to do: He put a cultural conversation born out of embarrassing institutional racism into painful perspective. He shocked, prodded, and made those responsible for those failings wholly uncomfortable.
“I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” he said. “You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. Y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”
He made a point, dared us to laugh, and shamed a few people. He angered a lot more, arguing that calls for a boycott were ridiculous and scandalizing with stories about our country’s racial history.
He was funny, brutal, divisive, and unapologetic, and, for the first time since, well, Rock himself belittled actors like Jude Law and was criticized for it, stopped the cycle of self-congratulation at the Oscars.
Better yet, it wasn’t a roast—it was Rock’s version of a sermon. A moral lecture told through a series of uncharacteristic (for this venue) personal stories, pearl-clutching jokes, and laid-bare truths.
It wasn’t perfect, because hosting the Oscars is the most thankless job a comedian can have—no gig is more scrutinized and has as little professional gain—and there really wasn’t a way to perfectly address what has become a global debate about inclusiveness, opportunity, and progress.
Rock was never going to, in a 15-minute monologue, solve racism—though I think with the amplification and ceaseless attention we’ve given this controversy and pressure we’ve put on his hosting stint, many thought he was going to. Instead he confronted. He confronted an industry that has been allowed to go too long without it, on its most important night of the year.
The whole event began with one of those insufferable montages that suck up time in an endless ceremony, a visual medley of scenes from the year in film, including for some reason Get Hard, Fifty Shades of Grey, and Pitch Perfect 2. Walking out on stage directly after, Rock quipped, “Man, I counted at least 15 black people in that montage.”
Rock could have easily and lazily just made 15 minutes of jokes just like that, one-liners that mock how white the Oscars are this year and we would have all laughed heartily and gave him rave reviews. Instead he decided to say something with meaning, which means polarizing—and which means he may actually be heard.
A bulk of his monologue addressed the boycott of the ceremony from some of Hollywood’s most visible black creators, including Spike Lee, Will Smith, and Jada Pinkett-Smith.
He took the piss out where it maybe was deserved: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.” But he stoked the fire when he started to question the worthiness or impact of a boycott at all, even suggesting that it was more masturbatory than meaningful.
“It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 times,” he said, referencing #OscarsSoWhite. “Black people did not protest. Black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer. When your grandma is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign Short.”
There were people who did not think that joke was funny. There were people who thought that joke was brilliant. But you don’t hire Chris Rock if you don’t want him to make that joke, and you’re not Chris Rock if you don’t make that joke. That doesn’t discount anyone offended by it or who found it irresponsible. It just acknowledges the comedian at the mic.
But to the point of the joke: There are people who will take umbrage with Rock suggesting that protesting the Oscars was petty, for shaming those who did for being moved into an active political stand—because such stands are the ways we make change. It’s admirable to want to do more than complain and finger-wag at an institution when a failing like #OscarsSoWhite occurs.
To use a public platform afforded to take a stand that could make ripples.
To recognize the power of an institution like the Academy for its trickle-down power to control diversity and inclusiveness: by recognizing a performer, a creator, or a film, you are green-lighting an idea that their stories are worthy, and therefore green-lighting more projects to include more of those stories. Demanding change—even if it’s by resorting to stunts like a boycott—when that institution fails isn’t petty.
Though this was Chris Rock’s public platform for these 15 minutes. And he apparently disagrees.
“Is Hollywood racist?” he continued, after which you could hear breaths held and a pin drop.
“You have to go at that in the right way. Is it burning cross racist? Is it fetch me lemonade racist? It’s a different type of racist,” he went on, eventually summarizing: “Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.”
For what it’s worth, that was the joke that seemed to get the most play on Twitter.
It’s hard to remember another Oscar monologue that made observations about our culture this sharp, that was this ruthless in its reckoning with what is simultaneously the most vapid industry in the world and also one of the most important and influential.
It wasn’t easy to watch. That became acutely clear every time the camera cut to white celebrities in the audience for reaction shots and you could see the panic as they attempted to figure out how hard they’re allowed to laugh. (My personal highlights of the monologue.)
The elephant in the room was addressed. With Chris Rock firing the shots, it was nearly poached. But it will take more than one powerful Oscars monologue to make the change that is actually necessary.
“It’s not about boycotting anything,” Rock said, preaching the climax of his sermon. “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. And not just once. Leo gets a great part every year. You guys get great parts all the time. What about black actors?”
And with that, and the entrance of Emily Blunt and “somebody whiter,” Charlize Theron, the rest of the three-and-a-half hour slog was ready to commence. Business as usual.