Comedian Chris Rock launched his return stint as Oscar host on Sunday by immediately and unabashedly confronting the racially charged elephant in the room – the furor over the all-white field of performers nominated for Hollywood’s highest honors.
In an opening monologue peppered with biting, no-holds-barred commentary about what he described as “sorority”-style discrimination pervading the film industry, Rock set the stage for a night of running gags that repeatedly returned to themes of racial politics.
In doing so, he transformed a glittering awards show long known for self-reverential pomp into a 3 1/2-hour live telecast punctuated by not-so-subtle satire riffing on issues of inclusion and diversity raised by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Strolling on stage in a white dinner jacket and bow tie, Rock casually introduced himself as host of a show “otherwise known as the white People’s Choice awards,” adding, “You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t get this job.”
From that moment on, it was clear Rock would be pulling no punches.
Wondering with mock bemusement why blacks’ anger over a lack of Oscar diversity never boiled over in the 1950s or ’60s like it did this year, he answered his own question, “Because we had real things to protest at the time.”
“We were too busy being raped and lynched then to care about who won best cinematographer,” he went on. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
Rock did not confine his barbs to Hollywood alone. He drew one of his biggest laughs joking that the Oscars’ annual “in-memorium” montage tribute to film stars who have died during the past year would instead be devoted to “black people who were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.”
It was a motif that stretched beyond Rock’s monologue into bits of comedy in between award presentations through the night.
In one pre-taped parody of a scene from “The Martian,” the Oscar-nominated sci-fi drama about an astronaut marooned on the Red Planet, Rock was substituted for the stranded star of that film, Matt Damon, as NASA officials argued whether it was worth the added expense to try to bring him back to Earth.
In another, Rock ventured in a tuxedo to a cinema in the predominantly black Los Angeles suburb of Compton to ask several African-American moviegoers there whether they had seen any of the films nominated this year for best picture. None had.
But all said they had seen, and enjoyed, the critically acclaimed hip-hop drama “Straight Outta Compton,” which failed to earn a place in the best picture contest.
Striking a balance between withering social satire and a more gentle brand of humor, Rock, 51, also invited members of his daughters’ Girl Scout troop into the auditorium of the Dolby Theatre at mid-show to sell boxes of cookies to the seated stars.
They sold over $65,000 worth of cookies in the bit, reminiscent of 2014 host Ellen DeGeneres’ pizza delivery to the assembled Hollywood elite.
Rock was named as host of the 88th Oscars in October, months before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its roster of nominees lacking a single person of color in any of the acting categories for a second straight year.
In the ensuing backlash, he was widely seen as a presciently inspired choice for diffusing tensions looming over the awards.