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Opinion Chris Rock, Justice for Flint and why we still have ‘real things to protest’

Host Chris Rock speaks at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. (Chris Pizzello/Invision via Associated Press)
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By the time the Academy Awards aired on Sunday, I’d spent three hours live-streaming Justice for Flint, a concert and fundraiser that film directors Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler helped organize. DuVernay, whose “Selma” took home one statue for best song last year, and Coogler, whose white lead, Sylvester Stallone, was nominated for “Creed” this year, opted to pool their philanthropic resources and travel to Flint last night rather than attend the awards. For me, this was the most meaningful disinvestment of black Hollywood players last night. Their Justice for Flint event featured singers and actors like Jesse Williams, Ledisi, Robert Glasper and Janelle Monáe. Children and families offered testimonials about lead-water-related miscarriages, angry skin rashes and test results with shockingly high lead levels.

At a benefit concert 2,000 miles from Hollywood, black artists and protesters raised money for the Flint water crisis on the night of the Oscars. (Video: The Washington Post)

At 8:30, I turned on the TV, while Justice for Flint still streamed on my laptop, and watched Chris Rock’s opening monologue at the Academy Awards. Amid viewer boycotts and some black Hollywood players declining attendance, Rock had the impossible task of acknowledging the long and obvious truth — the American film industry is overwhelming white and exclusive — and getting people to laugh through it.

Rock, who has made a career of marking quotidian differences between the quality of black life and white life in the United States, was an apt choice for the job. But after hours of watching Justice for Flint, much of his monologue felt like sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. Hollywood’s players have always been well aware of Hollywood’s exclusivity, working so hard to maintain it that they’re still making historical films about ancient Egypt without casting Egyptians. They didn’t hear anything from Chris Rock last night that they hadn’t been hearing for years, and though some of the jokes made them squirm, they have likely built up a tolerance for uncomfortable racial humor and commentary over the years. It has come up quite a bit in the history of the Oscars.

Rock did land a few great punchlines — one about Paul Giamatti’s range worked well: “One year, he’s whooping Lupita [Nyong’o, who won a best supporting actress statuette for her work in ’12 Years a Slave’]; the next, he’s crying at Eazy-E’s funeral [in ‘Straight Outta Compton’]. Now that’s range.” Another about Jamie Foxx’s considerable acting ability was also a winner: “Jamie Foxx was so good in ‘Ray’ that they went to the hospital and unplugged the real Ray Charles. It’s like, ‘We don’t need two of these!’ Nah, man.”

But there was one joke that fell especially flat, given the concurrence of Justice for Flint. Rock asserted that the Academy has ignored diverse casting for at least “71 other years” and that black viewers hadn’t boycotted. He claimed this was because, particularly in the early 1960s, “We had real things to protest at the time,” citing the rape and lynching that were routine occurrences of the Jim Crow era.

We still have real things to protest. If water contamination in a U.S. city due to alleged negligence doesn’t call for “real” protest, what does? Disinvestment in the Oscars — especially for DuVernay and Coogler — isn’t a frivolous undertaking. And black performers don’t want equal opportunity just to be considered for awards. In this country, celebrity has always afforded people the platform and the capital to push forward the issues that are important to them. There couldn’t have been a Justice for Flint fundraiser on the scale that they were able to mount without star power. Black celebrity — its acknowledgement and its compensation —  is significant.

Chris Rock knows that. But perhaps it’s safer to discomfit a roomful of Hollywood elites by discussing overt segregation and racialized violence as though they’re relics of a bygone time than to point out that, even with the perceived “privilege” of feeling free enough to speak up for inequity in the field of entertainment, overt segregation and racialized violence are still being perpetuated and protested. Tough call.

The rest of the night included more banter about race and diversity. But the most poignant moment of Rock’s night may have been when he brought out an all-black Girl Scout troop to help him raise cookie sales for his daughters. It was an image rarely seen at center stage in mainstream Hollywood: doting black fatherhood, and several dark-brown girls selling Girl Scout cookies, which is something as American as apple pie. That may have been the most racially progressive moment to cross that stage last night.