Almost 11 years ago, Chris Rock — the first African American man to emcee the Oscars since Richard Pryor co-hosted in 1983 — stood before a crowd of Hollywood luminaries and a TV audience of 41.5 million and said hello. Aggressively.
“Welcome to the 77th, and last, Academy Awards,” he said.
The joke was funny — a clever way to acknowledge that Rock, an edgy insult comedian who also happened to be black, wasn’t necessarily a face many expected to lead America through a schmaltzy evening devoted to Hollywood glitz and glamour. Rock then proceeded to turn his sarcasm to, among many other topics, the unusual fact that three black actors were nominated.
“It’s kind of like the Def Oscar Jam,” he said.
Now that A-listers such as Will Smith and Spike Lee and D-listers such as Stacey Dash are debating “#OscarsSoWhite” — 20 Academy Award acting nominees and not a person of color among them — Rock is at the center of a storm. One of the nation’s sharpest black satirists — one of its sharpest comedic voices, period — and a frequent commenter on race relations, he will host the Oscars in little more than a month despite calls for him to sit them out, and he must come up with something good to address the, ahem, white elephant in the room.
As, according to Entertainment Tonight, he is planning to do.
“Chris is hard at work. He and his writing staff locked themselves in a room,” Academy Awards producer Reginald Hudlin, who is also African American, told the tabloid. “As things got a little provocative and exciting, he said, ‘I’m throwing out the show I wrote and writing a new show.'”
Details about the rewrite were not forthcoming. But given the comedian’s track record, whatever Rock comes up will probably be memorable, tweetable and display his undisguised contempt for the Academy Awards and the film industry. This is not a new beef.
“Come on, it’s a fashion show,” Rock said of the Oscars right before hosting it in 2005. “No one performs; it’s not like a music show.” He added: “What straight black man sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one.”
This barbed critique wasn’t limited to pre-show interviews. Though pre-taped Oscar bits aren’t known for their durability, one from Rock’s broadcast in 2005 seems as relevant today — perhaps more relevant — than it did 11 years ago.
The gag was simple. Rock went to a movie theater and asked “regular people,” all of whom appeared to be black, what their favorite film was that year. Their answers — among them, “Alien vs. Predator,” “Saw,” “The Chronicles of Riddick” — didn’t appear on any Oscar ballots.
Rock then went further, asking whether they had seen films that were nominated — among them, “Sideways,” “Finding Neverland,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Aviator.” These titles elicited blank looks all around.
Then, Rock went in for the kill. “Did you see ‘White Chicks?'” he asked — a comedy in which the definitely black, very male Shawn and Marlon Wayans dressed up as, well, white chicks.
This one, Rock’s interviewees were familiar with. “Oh yeah, I loved ‘White Chicks!'”
“Yes, I loved that movie.”
“Yeah, I seen that. That was good.”
Although this wasn’t a peer-reviewed study, the takeaway was unmistakable: What Oscar deems praiseworthy, black America hasn’t necessarily even watched.
A Chris Rock bit from the 77th Academy Awards pointed out a racial divide at the movies.
In the past decade, Rock has thrown only more rocks at the movie biz. In a brutal essay for the Hollywood Reporter, published in 2014, the comedian took aim at “Hollywood’s race problem,” saying it’s a “white industry.”
“Now, when it comes to casting, Hollywood pretty much decides to cast a black guy or they don’t,” he wrote. “We’re never on the ‘short list.’ We’re never ‘in the mix.’ When there’s a hot part in town and the guys are reading for it, that’s just what happens. It was never like, ‘Is it going to be Ryan Gosling or Chiwetel Ejiofor for “Fifty Shades of Grey?”‘”
The system didn’t just marginalize black actors, he said. It made it harder even for those it allowed to succeed.
“When you have a system where you probably only see three movies with African-American leads in them a year,” he wrote, “they’re going to be judged more harshly, and you’re really rooting for them to be good a little more so than the 140 movies starring white people every year.”
Yet Rock has accepted a very high-profile gig celebrating movies starring white people made in Hollywood. Even his recent attempts to promote the show seemed to spit on it. Here’s what greets visitors to his Twitter page:
— Chris Rock (@chrisrock) January 15, 2016
Some were shocked he took the job at all.
“I mean, why not, but I’m surprised,” comedian Sarah Silverman told the Los Angeles Times last year. “It’s such a thankless job. Steve Martin did so well that one year. And he told me he had so much fun — until he made the mistake the next day of looking at what people had to say. It took him years to get over it.”
As host, though, Rock may have the right — even the responsibility — to ask whether there’s any point to the Academy Awards in the first place. An insult comedian can also shed light on an endemic problem.
“He has a right to ask, ‘What is this show?’” David Sims wrote in the Atlantic last year. “The Golden Globes has redesigned itself to be a sharp and entertaining TV special that happens to be about movie stars. The Oscars seem adrift as to theme and purpose. If I were its host, I’d feel uncomfortable, too.”
Meanwhile, it seems the academy wants more than swelling strings and stirring speeches from its red-carpet extravaganza. They want Chris Rock to be Chris Rock. Perhaps the Oscars have a masochistic streak.
“You should expect [#OscarsSoWhite jokes],” Hudlin told ET. “And, yes, the Academy is ready for him to do that. They’re excited about him doing that. They know that’s what we need. They know that’s what the public wants, and we deliver what the people want.”
It’s hard to imagine the people won’t get it.
“If I were Chris Rock, I wouldn’t be considering boycotting The Oscars,” Ricky Gervais — reliably irreverent as Golden Globes host — wrote on Facebook. “I’d be thinking ‘This s— is live. I can do some serious damage.'”
Correction: An earlier version of this article said Chris Rock was “the first African American to emcee the Oscars since Richard Pryor co-hosted in 1983.” That is not correct; Whoopi Goldberg hosted four times, including three years before Rock in 2002.