By Steven W Thrasher, thegaurdian.com
At the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday night, host Chris Rock moderated a discussion of race as it should be conducted in the United States: uncomfortably and without any easy resolution in just a few hours. And like most such attempts, it wasn’t as successful at solving anything, as it was inadvertently exposing the breadth of the problem through comedy.
Rock had an extremely difficult task in front of him, having agreed to host the show before the all-white acting nods were announced, which prompted boycotts and a re-emergence of #OscarsSoWhite. He certainly didn’t know that a Justice for Flint fundraiser would be happening on the same evening, or that he’d unwittingly prove how much more Hollywood cares about Girl Scout cookies than it does about drinking water for black people.
During the opening montage of films from the past year, I found myself engaging in the age-old pastime I call “counting Negroes” – wondering if the Academy was fitting in as many black faces as it could, despite none of those actors being nominated. I was relieved when Rock began his introduction similarly: “Man, I counted at least 15 black people on that montage.” I was thrilled when he bluntly said: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist.”
Rock kept black people at the forefront throughout the night, which was a cultural win of sorts. But his monologue – like his efforts overall to challenge the racism of Hollywood – was hit and miss. I was glad to see the audience confronted in the Dolby theatre, but it wasn’t exactly enjoyable. For example, Rock joked about telling Barack Obama at a Hollywood fundraiser: “Mr President, you see all these writers and producers and actors? They don’t hire black people, and they’re the nicest, white people on earth! They’re liberals!”
But it made me cringe to see those nice, powerful white people laughing at how they withhold jobs – and power – from black people, then walking away with gold. Earlier that evening, more than 2,000 miles away, it was equally cringeworthy to watch the comedian Hannibal Buress as he joked to a crowd in Flint, Michigan, about being checked into his hotel “regular style”, and being given a key without any warning. “There’s nothing else you want to tell me?” Buress wondered. Like, “Hey, the water is poison right now?” Watching Buress joke to the people of Flint about being poisoned with lead was as uncomfortable (and brilliant) as his infamous routine about Bill Cosby. Buress was performing at the Justice for Flint fundraiser that black directors Ava DuVernay (snubbed for Selma last year) and Ryan Coogler (snubbed for Creed) had scheduled for the same night as the Oscars. Watching Buress joke about racism in its most deadly form – to an audience of black people affected by it – was uncomfortable in a very different way to watching Rock yuk it up with powerful white folks.
Rock punched down a couple times in disappointing ways. First, he said that black people didn’t protest the Oscars in the early 1960s because “we had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer”. This is not true – NPR’s Gene Demby has written about a protest in 1962 – and implies black people who care about representation in the media can’t also care about the lynching and raping of black people today.
Rock ended his monologue taking a swipe at the #AskHerMore campaign – pushing for journalists to ask women film-makers about more than what they are wearing – by saying: “Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism.” It was an unnecessary dismissal of sexism in a business so sexist that 93% of top films are directed by men.
Where Rock succeeded was in keeping the audience nervous about race throughout the night. The highlight was when he subversively introduced the “Academy’s new director of the minority outreach”, Clueless actor and Fox News contributor Stacey Dash. Dash, who has called for the abolition of Black History Month, came on stage to say, awkwardly: “I cannot wait to help my people out. Happy Black History Month!” The clueless and nearly silent white people at the Dolby theatre didn’t know whether to laugh, clap or hide from the revolution. To black America, and especially black Twitter, Dash’s appearance couldn’t have provoked an angrier reaction than if Jamie Foxx came on stage to say black Oscar hopefuls needed to #actbetter for a fair shot. But in bringing out the Republican Dash, Rock skewered how meaningless attempts at “diversity” usually are.
As the ceremony wore on, the disconnect between black America outside and inside the Dolby theatre grew increasingly obvious, no more so than when Rock walked into the audience to sell Girl Scout cookies for his daughter’s troop. Shaking down the participants for cookie orders, Hollywood’s wealthiest waived bills at little black Girl Scouts to the tune of $65,243. Meanwhile, despite a head start on the air and trending on Twitter, the Justice for Flint fundraiser had, at the same time, raised just $52,000.
Oscar audience raises $65k for cookies. Can we raise $100k for folks poisoned by their own water? Text JUSTICE to 83224! #JusticeForFlint
— Ava DuVernay (@AVAETC) February 29, 2016
For all the ways in which the Academy desperately did not want to come off as racist this year, no one mentioned Flint, nor the fundraiser that Academy brethren were hosting at the same time. Unwittingly, Rock showed that the Academy cares more about the Girl Scout cookie sales of a black star’s daughter than it does about getting water to the poisoned black people of Flint.
Despite winners’ cause-filled speeches, the Academy is not about changing society or championing social justice. It’s about consolidating power, and its awards show is mostly about trying to expand its power without necessarily sharing it. Yes, not all the winners were white this year, including Mexican-born director Alejandro González Iñárritu, who won best director for a second year in a row for The Revenant. (Fortunately, no one even yelled “Who gave this sonofabitch his green card?” when he won this time, as Sean Penn did last year.)
After Spotlight won best picture and Rock signed off with shout-outs to Black Lives Matter, Brooklyn and cookies, the weirdest juxtaposition came as Public Enemy’s Fight the Power was played over the credits. It was a craven play to black viewers. The Oscars are at the tip of the iceberg of cultural power in America, so how can they invoke Public Enemy to call for fighting … themselves?
This rests upon an Academy that is 91% white and 76% male, whose membership is drawn from an entertainment industry which, according to recent studies, is a “straight, white boys’ club” where “women, people of colour and those identifying as LGBT are not represented on screen or behind the camera”. This also reflected in US academia and journalism media. When Melissa Harris-Perry walked off her show on the left-leaning MSNBC network last week, writing that it had been taken away from her, her removal stoked fears that, as the Obama years wind down, people of colour will be pushed out of media positions after making modest gains. A few days before the Oscars, the New York Times published a report describing “the faces of American power” as being “nearly as white as the Oscar nominees”.
In keeping us uncomfortable as we talked about it, and in showing how the Academy loves his children more than Flint’s, Rock made us confront Hollywood’s racism and how difficult, if not impossible, it will be to eradicate without changing the whole damn system.