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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Rock and a hard place

So how about that Oscars telecast, eh?

It was, of course, one of those memorable occasions that we will be talking about forever. It will live in our hearts and memories and we will perhaps look back at it as the moment when everything began to change. Everyone will be saying, you know it was at the 2016 Academy Awards that we all finally had our consciousness raised and belatedly got serious about a terrible festering problem that was threatening to overwhelm our society. Thank God that Leonardo DiCaprio won that Oscar so that he could enlighten us all about, uh, about… sorry, I was on a roll there but then I kinda lost my train of thought.

Needless to say I’m joking. This was the year of #OscarsSoWhite. It was the year that Al Sharpton competed with the ceremony (estimated audience: 34 million) by holding a nearby rally (estimated attendance: 40) calling on people not to watch a major TV event hosted by an African-American. It must have worked because 34 million was the lowest audience rating in eight years.

The fact that the very talented and funny Chris Rock was booked to host the same year that a lack of African-American nominees became a cause célèbre and social media même was a total coincidence—but probably a fortuitous one.

A couple of statistical footnotes: Though no African-American got nominated for an award in any category this year, two black Canadians (Jason “Daheala” Quenneville and the musician known as The Weeknd) shared a nomination with Belly and Stephan Moccio for the song “Earned It” from the ironically titled Fifty Shades of Grey. And Spike Lee received an honorary Academy Award this year for being “a champion of independent film and an inspiration to young filmmakers.”

Interestingly, after the nominations were first announced, The Economist magazine did an analysis of African-American actors in the movies in the 21st century and found that “the number of black actors winning Oscars in this century has been pretty much in line with the size of America’s overall black population. But this does not mean Hollywood has no problems of prejudice. As the data show, it clearly does.” You can see the magazine’s chart for yourself here, but my reading of it is that, in terms of SAG membership and number of film roles, African-Americans are right in line with their proportion in the overall population. They are a bit under-represented in terms of top movie roles and in Oscar acting nominations but, surprisingly, they are actually a bit over-represented in terms of Oscar wins—despite the seeming snubs of the past two years. It looks to me as though the ethnic group that really has a gripe is the one labeled “Latino,” which is shown to be very under-represented.

So how did Chris Rock do with what was always going to be a tricky monolog? Let’s Google some headlines. Reuters: “Chris Rock transforms Oscars into biting racial commentary.” Rolling Stone: “Chris Rock Takes No Prisoners With Oscars 2016 Monologue.” Fox News: “Rock Rips Hollywood racism.”

Did they watch the same broadcast I did? As so often when controversies rise to hashtag status, the journalists seem to have written their reports before the event actually occurred. There was a narrative to drive, and serious scribes never let what actually happens get in the way of that. Rock’s role was to speak truth to power, so that was what they were determined to see—assuming they actually even watched or listened.

Personally, I found Rock’s monolog very funny and at times brilliant. He got in good jabs at all parties in the controversy, he was at times outrageous and even in bad taste, and he even said a few things that were thought-provoking. Example: “I’m sure there was no black nominees some of those years, say ’62, ’63, and black people did not protest. Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We had real things to protest, we were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.” Now you can read that as saying that the kerfuffle over Oscar nominations is a logical extention of the civil rights struggle. But you can also interpret that as saying, hey, let’s maintain a little perspective on what’s really important here.

Another great quote: “This is the wildest, craziest Oscars to ever host, because we got all this controversy, no black nominees, and people are like, ‘Chris, you should boycott’, ‘Chris, you should quit, you should quit.’ How come it’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something? No one with a job ever tells you to quit.” Possibly the best line, though, was this one: “Tell the truth, I get it, I get it. You get mad—it’s not fair that Will [Smith, in Concussion] was this good and didn’t get nominated. Yeah, you’re right. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20 million for Wild Wild West. Okay?” And this was good too: “Another big thing tonight is you’re not allowed to ask women what they’re wearing any more… Well, not everything is sexism, not everything is racism. They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits. Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing.”

We know that wealthy people like Will Smith, Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee did not boycott the ceremony because they felt that they personally were the most aggrieved victims of racism. But it’s still hard to understand how they think their boycott helps the economic underclass. They’re the ones suffering the most from racial disparities. How out of touch all of this is was brought home by one of the best “gags” of Sunday’s show. In a pre-filmed bit, Rock did a Jay Leno-style on-the-street vox pop with people in Compton. Maybe it was a set-up, but it was still devastating the way one person after the other seemed to have no knowledge or interest in any the movies being honored in the Dolby Theatre. Hello, Hollywood elite, bubble much?

The worst fall-out from the #OscarsSoWhite controversy on the night? It gave Sacha Baron Cohen a pretext for resurrecting his annoying Ali G character from UK television and one ill-advised feature film. For the blissfully unaware, Ali G is a white British suburban bloke who seems to self-identify as Jamaican while appropriating rap culture.

But lest we think that the night was all about one particular controversy, let us take a moment to congratulate British singer/songwriter Sam Smith for winning (with Jimmy Napes) the best song award for “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre. In his speech, a clearly emotional Smith said, “I read an article a few months ago by Sir Ian McKellen and he said that no openly gay man had ever won an Oscar. If this is the case, even if it isn’t the case, I want to dedicate this to the LGBT community all around the world.” That may have come as a surprise to Elton John and Steven Sondheim—among others. It certainly did to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Milk and who tweeted that Smith should learn “our LGBTQ history.”

In the meantime Sir Ian had clarified that, in the Guardian interview alluded to by Smith, he had been referring specifically to gay actors. Presumably, only very openly gay actors. Rest easy, Sir John Gielgud.

-S.L., 1 March 2016

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