Oscar host Chris Rock didn’t merely acknowledge the elephant in the room. He brought it stage front and centre, where it seemed likely to stay all night.
From his very first words in a hotly anticipated monologue that deftly blended humour and gravity, Rock addressed the diversity issue rocking this year’s Oscars.
“I counted at least 15 black people in that montage!” he said of the opening film clips.
He went on to call the Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards,” and noted that if they had nominated potential hosts, “I wouldn’t have this job. You’d all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.” He was referring, of course, to the fact that every acting nominee this year was white, a development that led to the OscarsSoWhite backlash.
In some of his lighter comments, Rock joked about the people who’d urged him to boycott the awards show.
“How come it’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something?” he asked, and also cracked a few barbs at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith, who opted not to attend the show. Maybe it wasn’t fair that Smith hadn’t been nominated for “Concussion,” he said, but it also wasn’t fair that he earned $20 million for “Wild Wild West.”
In some of his edgier comments, Rock wondered why there hadn’t been protests back in the ’60s, when surely there were years with no black nominees. “Why? Because we had real things to protest,” he said. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”
And he quipped that this year’s in-memoriam package was “just going to be black people shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”
Turning more philosophical, he asked: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it’s not the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.'” And he added: “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities. Not just once. Leo (DiCaprio) gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time.”
The diversity issue wasn’t limited to Rock’s opening monologue. In one of several comic bits sprinkled through the first hour of the show, actress Angela Bassett offered a “Black History Month Minute” paying tribute to a “black” actor Jack Black.
And in a joke montage, gags were inserted into some of this year’s movies. In one, Rock himself was an astronaut left up on Mars, a la Matt Damon in “The Martian.” But this time, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig at NASA debated bringing him back and decided not to, since it would cost 2,500 “white dollars.”
Hollywood diversity was an issue outside the Dolby Theatre as well. Before the telecast, Rev. Al Sharpton addressed a group of several dozen protesters nearby. He told the group he would organize larger protests if diversity complaints are not addressed.
“This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars,” Sharpton said.
All 20 actors nominated Sunday are white. Sharpton criticized the Oscars for failing to nominate films such as “Straight Outta Compton,” ”Creed“ or ”Concussion“ for any of its top honours.
Derrik J. Lang reporting from Los Angeles contributed to this story.
To see the complete list of 2016 Oscar Winners, click here.