Chris Rock’s biting monologue Sunday night at the Academy Awards pulled no punches on Hollywood’s longstanding lack of diversity.
“I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the white people’s choice awards,” Rock said in his opening joke. “I realized if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. You’d be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now.”
Rock, however, also turned his fire on the Academy’s critics. Why was this the first year for protests over the lack of people of color included among nominees — where were the critics in the 1950s and ’60s, when black people were mostly shut out of Hollywood?
“[Back then] we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer,” Rock said to uncomfortable laughter. “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about who won Best Documentary Foreign Short.”
Rock played to his greatest strength: making everyone cringe while also making us laugh at just how messed up things really are. Two of Rock’s most searing monologues on race garnered applause and even cheers. The first was when he asked why this particular ceremony has caught so much heat. The other was one that directly addressed police brutality.
“This year the in memoriam package is just going to be black people shot by the cops on the way to the movies,” he said, to a room full of uneasy applause.
Throughout the show, Rock confronted the entertainment industry — mainly the producers, studio heads, and financiers who really run things, as well as the industry’s top actors. In a poignant anecdote, Rock recalled a Hollywood fundraiser for President Barack Obama. A handful of people there, he said, were people of color.
“At some point you get to take a picture with the president,” Rock said. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you see all these writers, and actors, and producers? They don’t hire black people. And they’re the nicest white people on Earth. They’re liberals. Cheese!’ Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist. But it’s not that racism you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.'”
Later in the show, a sketch reimagined some of the year’s biggest films with black actors dropped in. Divisive actress Stacey Dash wished everyone a happy Black History Month, and Jack Black was honored for being a great black actor. For another segment, Rock went to a movie theater in Compton to ask black moviegoers what they thought about the whole controversy.
Everyone laughed at Chris Rock’s criticisms — but few are trying to change
Rock told Hollywood what it should already know but has nonetheless made few decisive steps to change.
Last week, the New York Times asked 27 Hollywood players what it was like to really work in Hollywood if you’re not straight, white, and male.
America Ferrera, who is Latina, recounted going into auditions and being met with resistance for her race. “What do you do when someone says, ‘Your color skin is not what we’re looking for?'”
Eva Longoria said: “Networks say, ‘We’re on board with diversity,’ and they’ll develop it, but they seldom program it. We don’t have enough people in the decision-making process.”
Producer Effie Brown recalled: “[Initially], I had a real issue with Teamsters, who [were] predominantly male, predominantly white, and having that moment of ‘Oh, you really aren’t listening.’ And that’s when I started spouting my résumé. It’s a little demoralizing that you have to explain yourself.”
These long-held prejudices aren’t just anecdotal. A new study says the industry’s “epidemic of invisibility runs throughout popular storytelling.” According to the University of Southern California, 33.5 percent of all speaking roles in films released between September 2014 and August 2015 were for women, and 28.3 percent of speaking roles were filled by nonwhite actors.
Perhaps that’s because among those making the ultimate decisions, 94 percent of film studio heads were white and 100 percent were male between 2012 and 2013, according to a University of California Los Angeles 2015 study on diversity.
The excuse among the powers that be has long been the idea that white people are the majority of the moviegoing public. From film schools to studios, decision-makers see movies with casts of color as too alienating. But half of frequent moviegoers are nonwhite, according to the UCLA study. What’s more, films with racially diverse casts had the highest median global box office receipt and the highest median return on investment.
Those old excuses? They ring pretty hollow these days.
Since the nominations were released and #OscarsSoWhite returned for a second year in a row, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs put into motion a plan to widen the diversity among Oscar voters. But that doesn’t solve the deeper problems preventing films involving women and people of color from being made in the first place.
Maybe Kevin Hart’s moving speech was the call to action everyone needed to hear to make sure what happened in 2016 doesn’t happen again. Hart spoke directly to entertainers of color who were shut out of the big show this year.
“Tonight should not determine the hard work and effort you put into your craft,” he said. “These problems of today eventually become problems of the old. Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us. Let’s continue to do what we do best and work hard.”