From Chris Rock’s opening monologue to the fiery Public Enemy anthem “Fight The Power” that ran over the credits, the 88th annual Academy Awards mounted a sustained and wildly messy assault on Hollywood’s diversity problem, an epic insistence that black lives do matter. ABC’s broadcast could have avoided the controversy of #OscarsSoWhite, which would have been wrong, or dealt with it in one segment or a few segments, which may not have been sufficient. Instead, the show boldly engaged in the debate — even wallowed in it — and let the conversation that framed the entire awards season underline its final night. I’m not sure how much the Oscars affirmed the power of movies on Sunday, but the ceremony did assert the power of our chatter. The subtext of the entire evening seemed to be: If we don’t hit this race thing hard, Twitter’s gonna kill us. And so there was overkill.
One of our very best comedians, Rock was clearly in tough spot. How to critique the film industry on a night in which he was employed to be the industry’s biggest cheerleader? (You could say he was caught between “Chris Rock” and a hard place.) As host, he failed as an ambassador for cinema, and he certainly didn’t succeed at keeping things moving. He wasn’t as smooth as I wanted him to be, and while his roughness produced an energizing rawness, he contributed to a telecast marred by errant direction, dropped sound, and stagehands getting in the way of shots. But as whip to the show’s redemptive ideological and P.R. mission, Rock was provocative and effective, even if the jokes themselves were all over the place.
Beginning the night in an ivory tuxedo jacket, Rock welcomed us to “the white People’s Choice Awards.” He then jokesplained why he didn’t quit the gig after the nominations were announced. (It’s a job — and he couldn’t stand to lose another one to Kevin Hart.) The stand-up that followed tried to have it both ways by legitimizing and critiquing the outrage. After asking why it’s taken so long for people to care so much about diversity, Rock riffed on why African-Americans weren’t complaining about their lack of nominations in the 1960s: “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. When your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.” The audience laughed — and squirmed. Rock smiled at their discomfort and kept rolling.
Rock blasted Hollywood’s institutional biases and those that would protest it. Not every crack was funny, and his logic wasn’t always sound. He roasted Jada Pinkett Smith, who works on screens big and small and whose most recent credit is the Fox series Gotham, suggesting she didn’t have the authority to call for an Oscar boycott because she was currently a television actress and therefore not eligible for invitation to the movie prom. This from an actor whose most recent screen credit was a guest spot on Empire. (Perhaps Rock didn’t see Magic Mike XXL, which featured Pinkett Smith in a sizable supporting role.) He also seemed to dismiss her as a defensive wife standing up for her slighted man, Will Smith, who failed to receive a nomination for his performance in Concussion. (Why pick on Pinkett Smith? Why make her the face of the boycott movement instead of, say, Spike Lee, who was given a lifetime achievement Oscar last fall, yet whose bold, acclaimed film Chi-Raq was ignored.)
Rock kept pointing outward, diverting our attention to more urgent expressions of racial issues, like police shootings of black suspects. (The audience — or at least Matt Damon — really had no idea how to respond to that one.) I appreciated these jokes for the ways in which they got us thinking about bigger issues than Oscar meritocracy, but at the same time, they risked letting Hollywood off the hook by minimizing the #OscarsSoWhite problem, by saying, “This really isn’t a big deal.” His attempt to conceptualize Hollywood’s racism as “sorority racism” — the latest iteration of a point he’s been making for quite awhile — was too high concept and too soft. I wanted blunter and funnier.
Rock and the show in general produced a cultural good by simply talking about the problem of diversity so much, if not terribly well. It won on volume, not quality. Some bits worked like gangbusters, like the package that inserted Whoopi Goldberg, Tracy Morgan, and Leslie Jones into best picture nominees, either in token roles or replacing the white stars themselves. (Quibble: The Martian spoof — the idea that NASA wouldn’t spend billions and billions of dollars to rescue a black astronaut — has been done before and sharper by others.) Another bit, “Black History Month Minute,” saluted the achievements of… Jack Black.
But the show erred by making Hollywood’s problems with representation seem all about the marginalization of black people instead of addressing how it marginalizes everyone was isn’t white and male. The critique of inclusiveness was wrongly exclusive. When the show did acknowledge other races, it fumbled with stereotypes. Using Asian kids to portray the accountants who tabulate the Oscar votes? Why? Because they’re good at math? Yeesh. (Rock preemptively tried to counter complaint from those who might tweet-shame the joke by making another joke about our devices being made by Asian child labor.)
#OscarsSoWhite wasn’t the night’s only upstaging righteous cause. Lady Gaga turned her performance of “’Til It Happens To You” (from The Hunting Ground) into a forceful protest against campus rape, victim shaming, and a culture that allows sexual violence to flourish. Declaring himself “a proud gay man,” Sam Smith, who took home the Best Song Oscar for “The Writing’s On The Wall” (from Spectre) dedicated his award to the global LGBT community. Best Actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio used his speech to eloquently rail against climate change, environmental ruin, and the powerful forces that would seek to minimize or deny the cost of industry and consumerism run amok. DiCaprio took a lot of heat for how he waged his Oscar campaign, for humblebragging about how much he suffered for The Revenant. I’m not a fan of the movie myself, but he did well by himself with that speech.
The downside of Oscar’s advocacypalooza: nurturing a flawed view of movies as a means to an end instead of art, an ironic if fitting outcome for a glitchy gala that took as its theme a celebration of the filmmaking process. The most entertaining stretch of the evening was the hour in which Mad Max: Fury Road stormed the technical categories and brought waves of charmingly scruffy or exuberantly grateful artists to stage to testify to the power of collaboration. (Bedazzled, super-casual costume designer Jenny Beavan should win all the awards.) I was grateful for the huge upsets that not only pulled us through the too-long broadcast but also redirected our attention back to the movies. Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) beat Sylvester Stallone (Creed) for best supporting actor, a stunner that denied us a sentimental moment for the ages and cost Stallone what might have been his best and last chance to win a statue. In a welcome, smart, and underdog victory, Ex Machina beat Mad Max and Star Wars: The Force Awakens for Best Visual Effects. And to the delight of critics who’ve spent months loudly decrying The Revenant’s seemingly unstoppable march to Oscar glory, Spotlight took home the best picture trophy. Yay, journalism!
There was also a conspicuous amount of ribald irreverence. For a brief moment, I worried that the spirit of the Golden Globes had possessed the Oscars. Sarah Silverman joked about her “heavy Jewish boobs” and boning James “not a grower or a shower” Bond. Jared Leto joshed about merkins (and encouraged us to Google it if we didn’t know what a merkin was.) And yet, strangely enough, only one Donald Trump joke, unless I missed something (Andy Serkis had the honor). Maybe the most subversive stunt of the night was Rock selling Girl Scout cookies to the audience on behalf of his two daughters — a bit of business that produced the spectacle of wealthy Hollywood people (most of them white, of course) waving wads of cash in the air. He raised over $60,000. Way to make them pay, Rock. B-