So, as much of the free world is by now aware, Chris Rock, the skilled comedian and satirical social commentator, hosted the Oscars.
When he opened the show, Rock said some things. Lots of people have already shared key quotes and clips, calling it searing humor — a Ginsu knife-sharp takedown of both Hollywood's brand of racism and those who started the boycott over the lack of black Oscar nominees for what seems like largely personal gain. It was hip. It will be buzzy. He said a lot of things that are utterly and totally true in some pretty amusing ways.
But it wasn't all that novel. This country has no shortage of similar jokes and entire shows that have existed to make similar jokes for years now. "The Daily Show" has been on the air since 1999. Yet, here we are in 2016 with all our glorious public displays of openly racist and xenophobic politics and continued racial disparities in education, health, income, policing, imprisonment. And on and on and on.
The problem here isn't Rock or what he did and didn't say. The problem lies with Rock's audience — the folks at the Oscars and the many, many more watching the show in their living rooms.
That laughter came from people who were, in many cases, smugly amused. Those laughing must, of course, be aware of the truth about the way that project green-lighting and casting really happen in Hollywood, the way that directing and writing opportunities get assigned and which projects get the best promotion — and yes, well-funded Oscar-award campaigns that sway votes and deliver golden statues. They are hip. They are down. They almost certainly think they aren't personally part of the problem.
Some of the people in that audience and some watching at home almost certainly think of themselves as so not a part of the problem that they sometimes make their own less-sophisticated attempts at race and discrimination-themed satire. We need only examine a small sample of the hacked Sony emails to affirm that.
But what may actually be worse is what just about everyone who watched the show, who listened to Rock's monologue and who laughed for whatever reason, will likely do today. They will assume that the hip, cool and maybe even right thing to do ended after they got a good laugh.
Here is the hard, cold truth: Getting the joke or making less-sophisticated jokes like Rock's is not activism. It does not equal or prompt change, it does not require much effort or even thought on the part of the audience. And getting the joke or even every one of Rock's jokes does not prevent those laughing of actively making the problem worse today. One's sense of humor is not exculpatory. It does not indemnify.
If a large share of the people in that room — people who have been known to demand Evian water provisions for their dogs while working on a set — were to insert clauses in their contracts insisting on some level of effort to cast, recruit and staff their next project in a way that looks a little something more like the United States, well then, that would indeed be something
Instead, it is exceedingly likely that next year's Oscar nominee list will look a little different, if for nothing else than public relations reasons. But the real test of just how searing — just how real and biting, just how important Rock's monologue was — will be what happens this year as the writing jobs are filled, casting and financing decisions are made and all the other business of Hollywood and every other industry in this country happen out of public sight. That's less likely to change, as are the excuses made daily that sustain the situation in Hollywood and many, many other industries.
Unless the Americans who enjoyed a good laugh as Rock ripped through Hollywood on Sunday night examine recruiting and hiring and opportunity distribution practices at their own jobs today, all that really happened is a lot of Americans had a bit of fun. The poisonous effects of institutional and personal bigotry? Well, that will remain pretty much where it was, before Rock ever said a word.