Comedy and race will meet head-on at this year’s Academy Awards. Amid calls to boycott the Oscars over its lack of diversity, the host is one of today’s most provocative black comedians. You can just feel the audacious Chris Rock rubbing his hands together in excitement.
The first time Rock hosted the Oscars, in 2005, there were four black nominees. Rock called it “kind of like the Def Oscar Jam.” But even then, he noted complaints that “Hollywood is out of touch with the rest of the country.” To prove just how much, Rock went to the Magic Johnson Theaters in Los Angeles to see if he could find any black moviegoers who’d seen any of that year’s Oscar-nominated films. In an amusing, revelatory segment that aired during the telecast, none had.
One of Rock’s writers for that year’s Academy Awards, Ali LeRoi, says, “That audience wasn’t aware of most of the Oscar … films that were being held in high esteem.”
LeRoi has worked with Chris Rock for years. He and Rock co-created the TV show Everybody Hates Chris, which ran from 2005 to 2009. LeRoi expects Rock will return fully loaded at this year’s ceremony. Even though Rock signed on long before the nominations were announced, LeRoi says the controversy makes him an even better choice. “If this was Neil Patrick Harris,” he says, “it would be two minutes of ‘Oscars-are-so-white’ jokes. But everybody’s going, ‘Oh my God, it’s Chris Rock. What’s he gonna do?'” LeRoi says Rock has “extra weight to come in and be the guy that can say anything that nobody else can say.”
For any awards show emcee, prodding the stars is a big part of the job. When Rock hosted the BET Awards in 2014, The Butler was one of the nominees. He joked that Oprah Winfrey should’ve received an Oscar for her performance as the White House butler’s wife. “That acting job was amazing,” he enthused, “’cause she had to act like she was poor.”
The topic of race can be a minefield. For Rock, it’s a deep well of material for some of his most piercing jokes. At the BET Awards, he joked that the “real reason” the TV series Scandal was a hit was because “every Thursday at 10 o’clock, there’s a white president. White people get to tune in and feel good. Like, for one hour, it’s back to normal.”
Robin Thede, a writer for The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore, was on Rock’s writing team for that BET telecast. She says his writers’ room is always interesting. “He always brings together the most amazing groups of comedians. He loves getting voices from all walks of life,” says Thede.
If Thede were on Rock’s writing staff for the Oscars, she knows exactly what she’d want him to do. “I would love to see him just bring out every actor who should have been nominated and wasn’t,” she says. “All the actors from Straight Outta Compton, F. Gary Gray, Ice Cube …” Even though Viola Davis was doing TV last year, bring her out, too, says Thede. “Who cares? Just bring them out. Sit them on stage and make the audience stare at them.”
The optics would force the audience to face the fact that the Oscars are, indeed, really white this year. All 20 of the actors nominated for leading and supporting roles are white. Even the single nominations for Creed and Straight Outta Compton went to white people (Creed‘s Sylvester Stallone for Supporting Actor and the writers of Compton for Original Screenplay).
But for all of the outrage, there’s at least one person who is not thrilled with calls for a boycott over diversity. Sterlin Harjo, a filmmaker and member of the Native American comedy group the 1491s, says it’s a big deal that best picture nominee The Revenant cast Native performers. “We have to wait like once every 20 years to even end up at the Oscar dinner table. We’re usually not even invited to the party,” says Harjo. “And here we are. We have our adopted brother, Leo DiCaprio, is about to get an Oscar for a film that had Native people in it, actually speaking Native languages, and now there’s a call for boycott. Come on. Just give us this one.”
If The Revenant does win an Oscar, Harjo believes it’ll be an opportunity for whoever accepts the award to speak out, as DiCaprio did accepting his Golden Globe. At the end of his speech, DiCaprio said he wanted to “share the award with all the First Nations people represented in this film. And all the indigenous communities around the world.” DiCaprio continued, “It’s time that we heard your voice and protected this planet for future generations.”
Whether DiCaprio gets to repeat the performance on Feb. 28 is up to the voters in the Academy. But Chris Rock’s presence on stage is a given. And as he’s shown so many times before, he’s not one to squander an opportunity to talk about race.
“Racism everywhere. Everybody pissed off. Black people yelling ‘Racism.’ White people yelling ‘Reverse racism,'” Rock clamored in his 1999 comedy special Bigger and Blacker. “So everybody bitch about how bad their people got it. Nobody got it worse than the American Indian. Everybody need to calm the f— down. Indians got it bad. Indians got it the worst.”
What Chris Rock does on Oscar night might turn out to be more exciting than who wins.