By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES, Feb 29 – Comedian Chris Rock launched his return stint as Oscar host on Sunday by immediately, directly confronting the racially charged elephant in the room—the lingering furor over the all-white field of performers nominated for Hollywood’s highest awards.
Strolling on stage in a white dinner jacket and bow tie after an opening display of rapid-fire film clips from the past year in Hollywood movies, Rock declared with false irony, “Man I counted at least 15 black people in that montage.”
And he went on from there, introducing himself as host of the Academy Awards, “otherwise known as the white People’s Choice awards,” adding, “You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t get this job.”
Living up to his reputation for distilling social commentary through a provocative brand of humor,Rock, 51, pulled 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.”
The absence of black performers at the Oscars, and from films generally, was a motif that stretched beyond Rock‘s monologue into bits of comedy in between award presentations.
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.
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 driven by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite campaign on social media, Rockwas widely seen as a presciently inspired choice for diffusing tensions looming over the Dolby Theatre’s star-studded audience and ABC’s live telecast of the proceedings.
“No host has ever been more ideally placed to take shameless advantage of a shameful situation,” veteran New York Times television correspondent Bill Carter wrote for a recent special issue of The Hollywood Reporter.