The past week of GOP presidential politics has been a nasty affair that, just when you think it can’t get any worse, actually does. It has gotten to the point where the hard-working staff here at Spoiler Alerts has welcomed events that have changed the conversation on social media away from politics, however briefly.
It was with that mindset that the staff watched Sunday night’s Academy Awards. And then host Chris Rock had to go and be brilliant about race and Hollywood:
I’m about to do what E.B. White once warned against and analyze humor, but Rock merits this analysis. Anyone who has ever heard Rock talk about comedy knows that he considers it a serious craft. And in a situation where it was impossible to ignore the elephant in the room, Rock went right up to the elephant and made it a very welcome and interesting guest at the party.
All I really want to point out is that the structure of Rock’s monologue was genius. After a quick jab at the elephant (“I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards”), Rock then spent the next few minutes poking fun at the very idea of him boycotting the awards. That section closed with Rock making a trenchant point about why this wasn’t a controversy in the many previous decades when no African Americans were nominated for Oscars:
Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.
You know, when your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.
Rock, in essence, turned the protest into a big “First World problems” joke.
But just as the audience — in the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles and at home — started to feel more relaxed about their participation in the event, Rock pivoted: “Thing, you know, this year, the Oscars, things are gonna be a little different. Things are going to be a little different at the Oscars. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.”
And with that pivot, Rock then surgically and humorously explained exactly what Hollywood’s race problem is.
Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to.
Hollywood is sorority racist.
It’s like, “We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”
That’s how Hollywood is.
By that point, the audience is at least open to Rock’s argument — because of the first part of his opening, which criticized the very people who had been the most exercised about #OscarsSoWhite.
What’s brilliant and sad about Rock’s opening is that this is how presidential candidates once used rhetoric to appeal to the mass public. In their own ways, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama showed a willingness to criticize their parties in ways that resonated with citizens who were not members of that party. But after demonstrating that they could criticize their own, Clinton, Bush and Obama all articulated their own approaches to governing, most of which were perfectly in keeping with their party’s philosophy.
That trope has been missing in this year’s presidential campaign — indeed, the rightward shift in the GOP candidates has enabled the leftward shift of the Democratic candidates, and vice versa. Sure, we’re now seeing Marco Rubio going after Donald Trump, but Rubio’s criticisms are, shall we say, less sophisticated than Rock’s monologues.
No, the bulk of the presidential primary rhetoric from the candidates has been about outbidding. Donald Trump is the one legitimate exception to this rule, and he has finessed his more moderate policy statements with fascist rhetoric. In my book, that doesn’t count.
The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman noted that “this year will be remembered, rightly, for its thorny racial politics and for the way that Rock, probably as well as anyone could, held the industry to account on its biggest night.” Yes. Unfortunately, it also will be remembered for how Rock, in a comedy routine, displayed more political dexterity than most of the 2016 presidential field.