Chris Rock is responsible for one of the most brilliantly uncomfortable things that's ever happened at the Academy Awards.
It was a sketch he did when he hosted for the first time in 2005, the one in which he went to the Magic Johnson Theatre in Crenshaw, Los Angeles, to ask moviegoers there about what they had seen versus the titles that had been nominated. "You often hear that Hollywood is out of touch with the rest of the country, so I decided to get out of Hollywood and talk to regular people about the movies," he said.
But the bit had nothing to do with how much more liberal the filmmaking industry is than, say, Middle America, an assessment that most of the attendees in what was then the Kodak Theatre would be perfectly fine with. Instead, it showed how little the films being celebrated as examples of Hollywood's best self connected or mattered to black audiences just a few miles south.
When asked about Sideways and eventual winner Million Dollar Baby, the interviewees (save a cameoing Albert Brooks) all shrugged before expressing their fondness for Chronicles of Riddick and White Chicks. You could sense everyone in the Kodak Theatre squirming at the reminder that the niche biopics and issue films that tend to win prizes are also failing to serve other audiences. It wasn't just the whiteness of the awards that Rock perfectly skewered (and 2005 was a far better year for diverse nominees than 2016) — it was their cultural irrelevance. If anything near the billion people everyone says watch the Oscars really did, it wasn't because of how invested they all were in the fate of Finding Neverland, Rock noted.
People today continue to be largely indifferent toward movies like Finding Neverland, but they do care about a nominee whiteout at the Oscars that sparks a national conversation about representation in movies in general and, especially, the movies for which people win awards.
Maybe that's why Rock revisited the sketch at this year's ceremony. Going back to what's now the Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills to ask theatergoers about Spotlight, Brooklyn, and #OscarsSoWhite was still very funny, but less pointed, the acid subtext of that first go-round now the central focus. Rather than highlight how narrowly aimed the average awards-bait movie is and let that speak for itself, Rock asked explicitly how they felt about the "Oscar controversy." There was still a lady who’d never heard of Bridge of Spies and accused Rock of making the title up to mess with her, and it was delightful. His joke to her about how, if there were riots, “this was the time to get that TV," was less so — one of a few times in which he grouped offense with opportunism.
Everyone expected Rock to blow up the Oscars, to obliterate the artifice and prejudice of cinema's big, back-patting night out. A lot of people seemed to be counting on it, in fact — for Rock would rain cleansing fire on the ceremony that would allow the academy to move past this year's embarrassment. But Rock arrived not as a destroyer but as a deliverer of both fierce truths and calculated skepticism, and he even ultimately surrendered to the inertia of a ceremony that never feels less than endless. His most vibrant moment was his fiery, messy monologue that took aim at the academy (the "White People’s Choice Awards") and its long history of failing to recognize people of color. Rock also mocked Will and Jada Pinkett Smith for boycotting, and himself for saying yes in order to not "lose another job to Kevin Hart."
In the best part of his opening, Rock was open and bitingly accurate about Hollywood being racist — "sorority racist," the kind of racism in which "the nicest, white people on Earth," these well-meaning liberals, still fail to hire black casts and crew. But he also took on #AskHerMore, insisting that "everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism," while brushing off systemic reduction of women to their fashion choices and appearance.
Though he made an earnest plea that "we want opportunity — we want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors," Rock would later make a lousy, lazy crack involving stereotypes about Asians, who've gone even more woefully unrepresented at the awards than black people. He finished up by saying that anyone who was upset about the joke should tweet about it on their phone made by Asian child labor.
Yes, it was a mixed bag.
Everyone is complicit, Rock suggested, and outrage can come with an agenda, whether it be a chance at a new TV, an opportunity to grab headlines (honestly, what did Jada Pinkett Smith do to deserve the accusation of sore-loserdom?), a way to make your organization look penitent for diversity issues that will almost certainly crop up in a few years, or the chance to guilt a celebrity audience into buying tens of thousands of dollars' worth of Girl Scout cookies. When Rock brought on Stacey Dash — the Clueless star who made a heel turn to Fox News commentator, as the "new director of our minority outreach program" — the joke was the "job" had gone to someone who recently said that BET and the NAACP Image Awards should be eliminated because they are "segregation." But when Dash stood up there smugly wishing the crowd a "happy Black History Month," it was hard not to think that he'd also rewarded her with exactly what she wanted — her biggest platform yet.
Rock's mix of urgency and cynicism surely has something to do with his lines about how the black community "had real things" like lynching to protest decades ago and ongoing race-based police brutality today. In that formulation, movies and movie awards aren't "real." But Rock, who's directed a sharp film about representation and the Hollywood system himself, knows it's not nearly that simple.
Movies are both commerce and art, frivolous and essential, a billion-dollar industry that shapes our outlook as well as a source of mindless entertainment. Mad Max: Fury Road costume designer Jenny Beavan may have gotten played off with "Que Sera, Sera" when she tried to talk about polluting the atmosphere, but Best Documentary Short winner Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy noted that the Pakistani prime minister has vowed to change the law on honor killing after seeing her film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Sam Smith floundered in his attempt to salute the LBGT community, but Joe Biden and Lady Gaga brought issues of consent and college sexual assault to the stage along with a group of survivors.
Oscar season goes on forever — there are outrageous snubs, the ceremony's often tedious, and some incredibly eye roll–inducing stretches can be made to connect movies to real world causes. But the awards remain entertainment's biggest stage, the warped mirror in which Hollywood tries to see itself, and that has pull that's impossible to shake off, no matter how flawed the process. Even someone who sees through it, like Rock, still shows up — because it's a job, and because there's still hope for things to change for inside, no matter how slow the process.