Last night’s ABC broadcast of the 88th Academy Awards began with host Chris Rock announcing, “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” and ended three-and-a-half hours later with Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” playing over the credits. These moments bracketed a ceremony that served as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, a complicated attempt to admit guilt while promising to take action.
It also simultaneously suggested that the Academy actually already was taking action before all the controversy anyway. This effort culminated in the appearance of Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who spoke very solemnly and seriously about the recently instituted changes to members’ voting rights that is part of a plan to combat the lack of diversity in both the Oscar nominees and the Academy membership. In any other year, the Academy president taking a moment to address the subject of race would have made news, but here it was just part of an evening where questions about race and diverse representation started on the red carpet and never left the stage once the show had started, foregrounding every moment and mostly overshadowing the actual awards.
Going into the ceremony, anticipation ran high that Rock, who was hired before the nominations were announced, would use his position as host to mercilessly skewer the systemic racism of Hollywood, the Academy, and by extension all of the US. To a certain extent he did just that, starting with a biting monologue that mentioned lynching, rape, and police shootings, and later incorporating bits that imagined what the Best Picture nominations might have looked like if they had starred Tracy Morgan or Whoopi Goldberg.
In one of the better segments, a prerecorded video showed Rock outside of a movie theater in Compton asking black theatergoers if they had ever heard of the Best Picture nominees and what their favorite recent “white movie” was (that a couple of people believed Rock was making up the nominee Bridge of Spies, a movie I totally forgot existed despite the fact it starred Tom Hanks, alone made the joke worth it). This functioned to point out not only that black moviegoers aren’t interested in white movies but that Hollywood isn’t interested in creating movies that acknowledge the existence of people of color.
This mirrors the findings in a report released last week by the Media, Diversity and Social Change Initiative at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which called out the film and television industry for being “whitewashed” and suffering from an “inclusion crisis.” While the report detailed the lack of representation when it came to women, minorities, and LGBT people, both in front of and behind the camera — calling the matter an “epidemic of invisibility” — Rock’s Oscars seized on the issue of inclusion as strictly a question of race.
It’s a division solely between black and white that similarly left many people feeling unacknowledged and aptly providing evidence that there isn’t one right person, host, or change that can make the film and television industry accountable for the issues surrounding diverse representation. When Rock editorialized at the end of his monologue, “We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors,” it was almost possible to hear the responses formulating that would ask, “What about other actors of color?”
This is not meant as an Oscar-specific version of #AllLivesMatter but rather an observation that many of the blind spots produced at last night’s Oscars were the result of moments that focused on one point of view to the exclusion of others. The emphasis on American constructs of “race” allowed Sacha Baron Cohen to trot out his Ali G persona in order to introduce the movie Room. Cohen refused to discuss the film at all, telling joke after joke about race and then dismissively announcing, “Now check out a movie about a roomful of white people,” to what appeared to be the deep mortification of his co-presenter Olivia Wilde.
[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””] Room least deserved a nasty send-up. [/pullquote]
Room, starring Best Actress winner Brie Larson, tells the story of a young woman kidnapped, imprisoned, and raped, and the relationship she has with the son she gives birth to while in captivity. Of all the nominees it least deserved a nasty send-up, especially considering the nature of the subject matter, the small size of the production, and the previously faint wattage of its stars. Moments like this recurred throughout the night, with Rock delivering several of them. A tone-deaf joke about Asians being good at math while also serving as child labor was uncomfortable enough without the knowledge that Asian-American characters are featured in less than half of film and television projects and few actors from that continent were seen last night.
Intriguingly, some of the worst moments came when Rock, who no matter what jibes he made was still functioning as the hired host for the Academy, suggested that while the issue of Oscar nominations was important, it wasn’t Civil Rights important and aimed jokes at several black women. In discussing the boycott of the ceremony proposed by Jada Pinkett Smith, Rock exclaimed, “Jada said she’s not coming. I was like, ‘Isn’t she on a TV show?’ Jada’s gonna boycott the Oscars? Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!” – a joke that both dismissed Pinkett Smith’s right to a point-of-view and reduced Rihanna to a sexual punchline.
Minutes later Rock introduced Stacey Dash as the new director of “minority outreach,” a gag that was clearly at her expense, whether she realized it or not. And Rock’s barbs about how unimportant Oscar nominations would have been during the Civil Rights era were undermined by the simultaneous tweets of Gene Denby of NPR’s Code Switch and articles about the saga of Hattie McDaniel that were published during and after the ceremony.
[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Social media rightly got the attention.[/pullquote]
It was ironic that in an evening that saw the award for Best Picture go to Spotlight, an old-fashioned epic about the power of old-school print journalism, it was this direct engagement with social media journalism and activism — and the quick response it provides — that rightly got the attention. Beyond the meta awareness that the entire ceremony was a response to #OscarsSoWhite, the most emotional moments of the evening, the ones that argued most persuasively for the power of art to make change, were shared to social media as soon as they occurred. Lady Gaga’s emotional performance of “Til It Happens To You,” a ballad about surviving sexual assault from the documentary The Hunting Ground, was introduced by Vice President Joe Biden as part of a social media campaign to get people to take the “It’s On Us” pledge to end sexual assault and intervene in situations that might lead to sexual assault.
Gaga was joined onstage by 50 survivors of assault and as they raised their clasped hands at the end of the moving performance, the cameras zoomed in to find slogans written on their forearms, tailor-made for screen grabs and future hashtags. Award winners were more aware than ever that their speeches were a platform, and social media has made morning-after stars of people like Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who accepted the award for Best Documentary Short for her film “A Girl In the River: The Price of Forgiveness” about the still-practiced tradition of “honor killings” in Pakistan, by praising the women who had worked on it and thanking the men in her life who push for equality for women. It was a reminder to everyone in the audience that the work of social justice involves multiple voices, all pushing for everyone to be heard.