Watching Chris Rock host the Oscars was watching a man who has been in the industry for so long that he knows exactly what he is able to accomplish within it. It was watching the dance of someone torn between two masters, a phrase I cannot find a substitute for but am distinctly uncomfortable writing. On the one hand, he owes it to the Academy for him to be there. On the other hand, my god, Hollywood is some shook bullshit.
Did the Oscars being self aware about its lack of diversity make it better, or worse? In his opening monologue, Rock popped off from the jump, and as a black woman, I have to say, yeah, that was pretty comforting. Yes, Chris, the Oscars are the White People’s Choice Awards. By the same token, being forced to look at Matt Damon’s visage while he laughs uproariously at a joke about lynching made me want to crawl out of my skin. This was the devil’s bargain Rock was given by being asked to host this year. As Rock himself said, “How come there’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something, you know? No one with a job ever tells you to quit.”
It’s a joke, but it’s also the truth. The industry is deeply unfair to anyone that isn’t a straight, white male, but people have to work in it anyway. I mean for fuck’s sake, I started off as a games journalist—I get it Chris. You got mouths to feed. You have to be here.
I wanted Chris Rock to host the Oscars in the way where he never gets asked to host again, but Chris Rock doesn’t have that option. No black actors do. Did you know only ten black women have been nominated for best actress, and all those roles were women who lived in poverty? Black actors and actresses have to take roles that demean them, with the hopes that they can do a little good while they’re there.
What good did Chris Rock do last night? He filled the stage with as many black faces as humanly possible. Whether or not he was funny is basically beside the point. When Stacey Dash appeared, making a joke at the expense of her own regressive politics, we knew who these jokes were for. They were for us, on a night when we weren’t gonna get much else.
Every sketch, every sketch highlighted blackness. At every moment where it was possible to make the Oscars blacker, Chris Rock did so. Sometimes it was adorable, like when Rock brought out his daughter’s Girl Scout troupe to sell cookies. Some were bitterly funny, like Angela Bassett’s “Black History Minute,” where she honored the career of Jack Black.
Even when the jokes were hashtag problematic, like the casual transphobia of Tracy Morgan’s Danish Girl bit (ha! ha! a man in a dress! black transwomen are constantly being murdered in the US!), the point was to hammer home that we are here, we have always been here, and ignoring us isn’t going to make us go away.
Chris Rock has been working for a long time, and he knows what he can do with his position of relative power: not much. Increasing the diversity of Hollywood, the Oscars, and the roles given to people of color is going to take more than a few glib jokes. It’s going to take time and work.
But Chris Rock was doing a thing last night that I have done many times in my life. How do you say to colleagues, friends, that no, you aren’t racist, and no, this isn’t your fault, but yes, yes, yes this situation we are in right now is racist as fuck?
In his opening monologue, Rock danced around calling out the people he works with and for, for their participation in a system that categorically denies honors to people of color. He recounted a story about being able to meet the president, and getting a moment with him for a photo op. “I’m like, ‘Mr. President, you see all these writers and producers and actors?’” he said. “‘They don’t hire black people, and they’re the nicest, white people on earth! They’re liberals! Cheese!’”
The audience was, at times, distinctly uncomfortable, groaning audibly at jokes that maybe touched a nerve. But they were also able to laugh at themselves. Maybe, that means something got through. Maybe they’ll do better now. You do what you can with the power you’re allowed to wield.
Rock rounded off the night with a video segment where he went to Compton to talk to Real Live Black People about their favorite movies of the year. The sketch was both funny and touching, revealing on the one hand that black people just aren’t interested in the movies that the Academy lauds, and that black people have their own cultural tradition of cinema. Shout out to you, guy whose favorite movie was Superfly. You made me miss my dad. Shout out, also, to the woman who said her favorite “white movie” of the year was By the Sea with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie (Rock responded, “Wow, not even they would say that!”). Maybe black people see more kinds of movies than the Academy assumes. Maybe cinema is a more interesting place than the Academy has deigned to notice. Maybe it’s time to stop imagining there’s only one mode of cinema. This sketch made these ideas gentle, harmless. These were real people, and we were laughing with them, hopefully taking their lived experiences into account.
Chris Rock ended the show by saying “Black lives matter.” By the time we reached that place, two hours later, I hope that phrase and idea stopped sounding quite so threatening.
Gita Jackson is one of Paste’s assistant comedy editors.