Closing the Academy Awards telecast in the year of #OscarsSoWhite with Public Enemy's vintage hip-hop anthem “Fight the Power” was…
1)… hilariously tone-deaf?
2)… welcome self-deprecation about the controversy?
3)… an appropriate end to a ceremony that had made the controversy into its private subject matter?
Though I, like many, rolled my eyes at the lack of African-American nominees this year – and was with Oscar host Chris Rock 100 percent when he introduced Creed star Michael B. Jordan as a “should've been nominee” – I ultimately fell somewhere between the second and third options for the concluding song choice. No, the snarl of Chuck D. didn't retroactively make the nominees list any blacker, but Rock, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs and the producers of the Oscar-cast had steered directly into this particular skid, so why not go there – and with a song that famously opened a film (Do the Right Thing) that was at the center of a previous Oscar controversy about race?
Hosting the Oscars can be a thankless task. Please the rich and famous people in the room, and you may bore the TV audience. Play to the people watching at home, and you risk alienating the crowd in the theater. In Rock's previous stint, he did the latter, offending Sean Penn (and others) by belittling Jude Law and other quasi-movie stars. With #OscarsSoWhite, though, there was no other option. He was the perfect host for the night, and if the show itself was imperfect, that lay more on the usual Oscar bloat(*) than on the host's excellent performance.
(*) The show ran 30+ minutes past its scheduled end time, and could have easily excised or trimmed any or all of the following: Stacey Dash's awkward cameo, Sacha Baron Cohen reviving Ali G, the Minions, the Star Wars droids (I love them, but their appearance accomplished nothing), any song that wasn't Lady Gaga surrounded by campus rape survivors, Sarah Silverman's introduction of Sam Smith's terrible (but now Oscar-winning) Spectre song, Kevin Hart's own lengthy song introduction, the Black History Minute sketch, and Rock's trip to a movie theater in Compton to get opinions on the controversy and this year's nominees (I'd keep that bit, if only for the two moviegoers who assumed Rock had made up Bridge of Spies, but trim it overall). Some of those were clearly Rock's ideas (the Black History Minute part of some weird running vendetta against Will and Jada Smith), so he's not absolved of his role in the bloat, but we crossed the 11 p.m. Eastern mark with eight awards still to present, plus Gaga's performance. That's just bad producing. Hell, seating all the Mad Max: Fury Road nominees closer to the stage would have shaved off 10 minutes.
Rock, who took the stage in a tuxedo with a white jacket, didn't waste time getting to the serendipity of him being chosen to host the show again in this particular year, joking that he counted at least 15 black people in the opening montage (some of whom, like Anthony Mackie in Avengers: Age of Ultron, were barely in their films), and then nicknaming the Oscars “the White People's Choice Awards.” Rock was blunt about the struggles that black actors still have to be cast in movies, but also tried putting the issue into perspective compared to more dire matters of race relations in America.
Noting that everyone asks him if Hollywood is racist, he suggested it isn't “Burning cross racist” or “'Fetch me some lemonade' racist,” but “Sorority racist: 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa!” He also suggested that other years without black nominees – say, in the years in the '60s when Sidney Poitier didn't make a movie – didn't generate such ire, “Because we had real things to protest at the time.” This may have seemed dismissive of the current lousy state of race in America, but he later joked that the In Memoriam montage was “just going to be black people who got shot by the cops on the way to the movies.”
Rock pulled no punches and took no prisoners. His shots didn't always connect – the Jamie Foxx set-up led to a funny joke about Ray, but not the implied follow-up about the kinds of roles Foxx has gotten since his Oscar win compared to some of his white peers – but he somehow managed to make most of his points without seeming like he was haranguing either the audience in Hollywood or the larger one around the world.
Rock kept the references going throughout the night – returning from an early commercial break, he said, “And we're black!” – but also mixed in other bits, like an attempt to sell Girl Scout Cookies for his daughter's troupe, that several recent hosts might have tried. (It was very reminiscent of Ellen DeGeneres ordering pizza for the attendees – and not just because it probably would have been better as a one-off joke rather than a running gag.)
And not counting Rock and Isaacs, 11 of the evening's presenters were African-American – some former winners like Lou Gossett Jr., Morgan Freeman, and Whoopi Goldberg, some just working actors like Hart, Kerry Washington, and Chadwick Boseman – which was a higher number than usual. It did nothing to alter the complexion of the nominees and winners, but half the purpose of the Oscars is to represent the current and rising stars of the industry to both the audience and the industry itself. Having Boseman present a couple of awards with Chris Evans functions not just as ABC/Disney cross-promotion of the next Captain America film, but sends a signal that these are two men who could be considered for many of the same parts. (Similarly, the pairing of Jordan and Rachel McAdams made me very much want to see a movie with the two of them… doing anything, really.)
The Oscars are always political in multiple ways, and the 88th ceremony was no exception. Speeches touched on the importance of a free press, the Holocaust, campus rape (even more powerfully dramatized by the Gaga performance), the housing market collapse and the global financial crisis it triggered, and a lot more. (Even Louis C.K.'s documentary short subject introduction, while mostly having fun with how little money those nominees make compared to most people in the room, was also a celebration of the value those films provide the culture.) As a result, this still didn't feel like a single-issue ceremony, even though Rock and others understandably kept bringing that one up.
One awards ceremony isn't going to magically cure all of the industry's diversity ills, any more than Leonardo DiCaprio's Revenant acceptance speech is going to fix global warming. But it was a discussion worth having, and Rock managed to do it in a fashion that ultimately fit the larger spirit of the evening – and in a way that somehow made “Fight the Power” not feel utterly ridiculous as the evening's closing note.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org