Chris Rock came to the Oscars to enjoy himself. America could learn something from him. The second the stand-up took the high-stakes stage at the Dolby Theater, he was openly grinning at the irony—a black man hosting an Oscars ceremony that was accused of being so white it earned a boycott from notable Hollywood figures like the Will-Jada-Willow-Jaden-Pinkett-Smiths. Brewing for months, the #OscarsSoWhite movement objected to the dearth of minority actors and artists nominated for awards.
Instead of boycotting, Rock strode into a controversial slot and did what surprisingly few Oscar hosts manage. He entertained. His opening monologue didn’t ignore the controversy, but embraced it. Just as only Nixon could go to China, perhaps only Chris Rock could go to #OscarsSoWhite.
So, I thought about quitting. I thought about it real hard. But, I realized, they’re gonna have the Oscars anyway. They’re not gonna cancel the Oscars because I quit. You know? And the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart, O.K.?
I don’t need that. Kev right there — Kev makes movies fast. Every month. Porno stars don’t make movies that fast.
In a room so uniformly liberal, Rock could have castigated the “White People’s Choice Awards,” as he called them, with uniformly safe, friendly jabs, but he seemed to grasp that if the problem is a lack of diversity, why not diversify one’s targets? Hence, his performance’s South-Parkian feel— a roving combo of social commentary and satire that left one wondering exactly what its author believes.
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.
Observations that make conservatives gleeful and liberals tsk-tsk. Check, on the #AskHerMore campaign’s allegations of sexism in red-carpet questioning:
They ask the men more because the men are all wearing the same outfits, O.K.? Every guy in there is wearing the exact same thing. You know, if George Clooney showed up with a lime green tux on, and a swan coming out his ass, somebody would go, ‘What you wearing, George?’
Goofy observational humor? Check:
Think about it: There’s no real reason for there to be a man and a woman category in acting. C’mon. There’s no reason. It’s not track and field. You don’t have to separate ‘em. You know, Robert De Niro’s never said, ‘I better slow this acting down, so Meryl Streep can catch up.’
But what emerged was a diagnosis and dismantling of the outrage culture that brought us #OscarsSoWhite and #AskHerMore:
1. Not all outrages are created equal.
Modern society, social media, and hashtag activism have a way of treating every social problem and every perceived slight as if they require our outrage levels to go to 11. But not everything requires going to 11. As Rock pointed out:
‘Now the thing is, Why are we protesting? The big question: Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know?
It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. O.K.?
You gotta figure that it happened in the 50s, in the 60s — you know, in the 60s, one of those years Sidney didn’t put out a movie. I’m sure there were no black nominees some of those years. Say ‘62 or ‘63, and black people did not protest.
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.’
This idea is anathema to the outrage-stokers. All affronts must be the greatest of affronts. A New York Daily News op-ed by activist Shaun King of #BlackLivesMatter fame seemed to suggest this joke was at the expense of the lynched instead of a pleading for perspective. King also offered some notes to the comedian:
At that point, Rock could’ve taught his white audience how we are in a new era of black activism and consciousness that doesn’t really take slights and snubs with a smile anymore. He could’ve opined on how Black Twitter, which didn’t exist for previous generations, fueled this frustration. None of that happened though.
Sounds like a hoot.
2. Not everything is an outrage.
“Everything’s not sexism, everything’s not racism,” Rock proclaimed at the end of his monologue, begging American society to laugh with him and giving us license to chill the heck out.
Social-justice-warrior Twitter exploded in a frenzy of carping. Regular-people Twitter exploded in a frenzy of “YASSSS, PREACH.”
Rock is no stranger to the slings and arrows of the PC police. He told Vulture last year he stopped playing college campuses because “they’re way too conservative. Not in their political views…but in their social views and their willingness not to offend anybody…You can’t even be offensive on your way to being inoffensive.”
3. More speech is more fun.
Outrage mongers love to shut people up when they don’t agree with them. Rock’s mere presence at the Oscars disproved their thesis that if one is not an #OscarsSoWhite activist one cannot care about race issues. Showing up did not make Rock a sell-out racist, and his presence likely reached more people than Smith’s conspicuous absence.
His commentary was more effective and more nuanced than the deadly dull earnestness of the Academy’s (first African-American!) president promising the audience they’d make things better, or Lady Gaga’s Greek chorus of sexual-assault survivors, or Leonardo DiCaprio’s decision to perform a Tumblr post on climate change instead of an acceptance speech.
Rock made clear he thinks Hollywood has its problems, but he refused to conform to the approved outrage model. And that was more fun for all of us.