WASHINGTON -- I often think of Chris Rock as a dependably astute observer of human behavior, sort of an Alexis de Tocqueville of modern American comedy.
Rock's stand-up style, after all, recalls Tocqueville's description of the literature of democracies. "The style will often be strange, incorrect, overburdened, and loose," the French observer wrote, "and almost always strong and bold." Further, artists in such societies "will strive to astonish more than to please, and to stir passions rather than to charm taste." If that's not Rock in a nutshell, I don't know what is.
So I wasn't especially surprised when I got wind of his recent controversial comments about the Academy Awards. "What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one," Rock demanded in the Feb. 4 issue of Entertainment Weekly.
I realize he was probably just drumming up interest in the Feb. 27 telecast of the show, which he will host for the first time. And I acknowledge a certain folly in taking the comments of comedians seriously. Still, as a straight black man who often watches the Oscars, I feel compelled to issue a rebuttal.
It is quite likely that the Oscar audience typically includes a sizable number of straight black males, a broad range spanning diverse incomes, political views and lifestyles. I wouldn't be surprised, for instance, if Armstrong Williams interrupted repairing his damaged reputation to tune in. Similarly, I'd bet my do-rag that 50 Cent will pause amid redecorating his 52-room estate in Farmington, Conn., to see if Jamie Foxx will walk away with a statuette for "Ray."
Rock's reliable and unpredictable wit makes this year's ceremony more appealing than usual for most African-American viewers, along with the presence of four black actors vying for prizes. (In addition to Foxx's two nominations, Don Cheadle is up for best actor, Morgan Freeman is up for best supporting actor, and Sophie Okonedo, a lovely British performer, is up for best supporting actress.)
As for the black males -- straight and gay -- with whom I regularly discuss movies, we're anticipating the upcoming awards with cautious optimism. We appreciate that the odds of receiving recognition are improving for black actors, and happily credit the academy for the progress it has shown in recent years. We're pleased that Djimon Hounsou got a nod last year for his role as a suffering artist in "In America," although we harbor some lingering resentment over the magnificent Chiwetel Ejiofor's overlooked lead performance in "Dirty Pretty Things." That omission was as inexplicable as this year's neglect of Regina King.
We're also aware that blacks who work on the other side of the camera are also beginning to catch the Academy's eye. We know about Russell Williams, a sound engineer who won Oscars for his work on "Glory" and "Dances With Wolves." He is the only African-American besides Denzel Washington to own more than one statuette.
And we applaud expanded access to the director's chair: a number of nonwhites have won the opportunity to steer productions that have little apparent connection to their ethnic backgrounds. F. Gary Gray, an African-American, directed "The Italian Job," Antoine Fuqua, also black, directed "King Arthur." Mira Nair, originally from India, directed Reese Witherspoon in "Vanity Fair." John Woo, born in China, has directed "Windtalkers" and "Face/Off," among others. Clearly the American film industry has moved forward since People magazine published an embarrassing cover story called "Hollywood Blackout" in 1996.
Still, there is plenty room for improvement. Take screenwriting, for instance. Lonnie Elder was the first black writer to receive an Oscar nomination, for his adaptation of "Sounder" in 1972. Since then there have been only three others: Spike Lee for "Do the Right Thing" in 1989, Charles Burnett for "To Sleep with Anger" in 1990 and John Singleton for "Boyz N the Hood" in 1991.
Hollywood, which takes pride in its ostensible liberalness, is no trendsetter when it comes to multicultural acceptance. It lags behind baseball, for example, where Ichiro Suzuki, a Japanese player, is among the game's most popular athletes, and the NBA, where Yao Ming, the league's only Chinese player, was the leading vote-getter in this year's All-Star balloting. Or even George W. Bush's Cabinet, where he's appointed two blacks to perform the vastly more important role of secretary of state -- matching the number of black Oscar winners for best actor in the past 40 years.
Viewed in such a context, hiring Chris Rock as host may be the Academy's most daring move in decades -- strong, bold and, as we have seen, certain to stir passions.