Oscar host Chris Rock didn’t merely acknowledge the elephant in the room. He brought it stage front and center, where it stayed much of the night.
From his very first words in a hotly anticipated monologue that deftly blended humor and gravity, Rock addressed the diversity issue rocking this year’s Oscars.
“I counted at least 15 black people in that montage!” he said of the opening film clips.
He went on to call the Oscars the “White People’s Choice Awards,” and noted that if they had nominated potential hosts, “I wouldn’t have this job. You’d all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”
He was referring, of course, to the fact that every acting nominee was white for the second year running, a development that led to the OscarsSoWhite backlash. It also led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce sweeping changes meant to increase diversity in its membership — changes that the academy’s president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, made reference to as she called on the industry to join in creating change.
“With opportunity comes responsibility,” Boone Isaacs said. “It’s not enough to just listen and agree. We must take action.”
Rock, in some of his lighter comments, joked about the people who’d urged him to boycott the awards show.
“How come it’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something?” he asked, and also cracked a few barbs at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith, who opted not to attend the show. Maybe it wasn’t fair that Smith hadn’t been nominated for best actor for “Concussion,” he said, but it also wasn’t fair that he earned $20 million for “Wild Wild West.”
In some of his edgier remarks, Rock wondered why there hadn’t been protests back in the ‘60s, when surely there were years with no black nominees. “Why? Because we had real things to protest,” he said. “We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”
And he quipped that this year’s in-memoriam package was “just going to be black people shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”
Turning more philosophical, he asked: “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it’s not the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”’ And he added: “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities. Not just once. Leo (DiCaprio) gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time.”
The diversity issue wasn’t limited to Rock’s opening monologue. In one of the best of several comic bits sprinkled through the show, actress Angela Bassett offered a “Black History Month Minute” paying tribute to a “black” actor — Jack Black.
In a joke montage, gags were inserted into some of this year’s movies. In one, Rock himself was an astronaut left up on Mars, a la Matt Damon in “The Martian.” But this time, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig at NASA debated bringing him back and decided not to, since it would cost 2,500 “white dollars.”
And Rock did a taped bit outside a movie theater in Compton, California for what he called a “fresh perspective,” interviewing black moviegoers who said they’d never heard of nominated films like “Spotlight,” “Brooklyn,” “Trumbo” or “Bridge of Spies.”
Actor Kevin Hart also addressed the subject when his turn came onstage, paying tribute to “all my actresses and actors of color who didn’t get nominated.” He said the problem would one day be solved. “Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us,” he added.
Hollywood diversity was an issue outside the Dolby Theatre as well. Before the telecast, Rev. Al Sharpton addressed a group of several dozen protesters nearby. He told the group he would organize larger protests if diversity complaints are not addressed.
“This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars,” Sharpton said.
All 20 actors nominated Sunday are white. Sharpton criticized the Oscars for failing to nominate films such as “Straight Outta Compton,” ‘’Creed” or “Concussion” for any of its top honors.
In New York, some 20 protesters, most allied with Sharpton’s network, shouted “No justice, no peace” in front of police barricades in front of ABC’s New York studios.
Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this story.