By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times (TNS)
In one of his many quotable bits, Chris Rock describes his difficulties landing roles in Hollywood. “My job is like an ambulance chaser,” he said. “I’ve got to look for movies with white guys falling out of them.” Rock didn’t have to run down his latest gig. When the comic was named host of the 2016 Oscars this week – his second turn at the podium after a 2005 stint – it was for a job that Oscar producer Reginald Hudlin, Rock’s collaborator on the TV series Everybody Hates Chris, had keenly targeted for him.
Nor are the Oscars, which will be held on Feb. 28, the same lily-white affair of even the recent past. Rock joins Hudlin and academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs as part of a trio of black Americans in charge of Hollywood’s biggest night in 2016. The news comes barely 18 months after Steve McQueen became the first black director to see his movie win the best picture Oscar.
But the novelty of Rock’s status as the only black man to serve as a solo Oscars host points up the ways the movie business can still be racially challenged. And the kind of jokes the comedian trades in underscores how the show, for the first time in years, has an emcee who won’t be afraid to call out that dysfunction.
In many respects, Rock is the right man for an increasingly race-aware moment. As the Black Lives Matter movement continues capturing headlines, Hollywood figures like director Ava DuVernay and The Daily Show host Trevor Noah have come to prominence, while Straight Outta Compton makes piles of money by not shying away from racial injustice. Rock, then, is less a revolutionary choice than the product of a slow-moving industry shift. The comedian has often been a kind of racial straight-shooter, jabbing even at well-meaning sorts. (Recall his quips about white people complimenting Colin Powell as “well-spoken.”) With his high-volume delivery, a kind of wide-eyed wise guy, Rock has managed to work within the mainstream while retaining an outre sensibility. Most recently, he directed the taboo-busting Amy Schumer in an HBO comedy special at New York’s Apollo Theatre. Last year he wrote, directed and starred in the dark comedy Top Five, a shade-throwing exercise centered on the celebrity-industrial complex.
It is unlikely he will tone down that approach at the Oscars. Hudlin said last month that he and co-producer David Hill wanted to give the viewer “a little hint of danger.” And, in any event, Rock rarely pulls punches. Whether the audience is open to absorbing them is another matter.
The Academy Awards room can be thin-skinned, which Rock learned firsthand in 2005, when he joked about the ubiquity of a particular British actor. “Who is Jude Law?” Rock said at the time. “Why is he in every movie I have seen, the last four years? He’s in everything…. Next year he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie.”
The line famously set off Sean Penn (“Forgive my lack of humor. Jude Law is one of our most talented actors,” he said when he took the stage). Though the joke was not primarily about race, it was hard to avoid the subtext – an earnest white American actor coming to the defense of a British white actor for a joke a black actor made about the ease with which the Brit landed roles. The next day media pundits volleyed for and against Rock’s monologue, fueling a media storm that overshadowed many of the night’s winners. And this was before Twitter.
Rock has continued his frank approach of late. His SNL hosting gig last year was rife with fraught topics. In December, as he went on the Oscar stump for Top Five, he wrote an essay in the Hollywood Reporter calling out entertainment-business truths as he viewed them.
“It’s a white industry. Just as the NBA is a black industry. I’m not even saying it’s a bad thing. It just is,” he wrote.
There will be much for him to note from the Dolby Theatre podium. When it comes to racial inclusion, much has undoubtedly changed since Rock’s last Oscar turn. Four black women, for instance, have won acting awards since 2005 – compared with three who had won in the entirety of Oscar history before that.
But Hollywood’s overall lack of diversity remains. Movies with large black casts still struggle to get made, particularly over a certain budget level, and prestige film in particular has a monochrome feel.
At the Oscars, the past five years have seen a whiteout among the 20 acting nominees on two occasions – no person of minority status was nominated in either 2011 or 2015. (It hadn’t happened previously since 1998.) Under Boone Isaacs, the academy has sought to expand its membership, softening quotas so that nearly 600 people have been invited in the past few years, a decent number of them minorities. But with more than 7,000 members holding lifetime status, change is slow. The 2015 ceremony still saw the snub of the black British-born actor David Oyelowo, who many thought was a lock for a nomination for his lead role in Selma.
And this year is showing few early signs that that has changed. There are relatively few movies with large black casts in the mix – Straight Outta Compton, the summer hit about the rap group N.W.A, is one of the few contenders that could make a splash, and a number of experts have it on the bubble.
If he had larger race issues on his mind Wednesday, Rock didn’t tip his hand. “I’m so glad to be hosting the Oscars. It’s great to be back” was all he said in an official statement. Academy CEO Dawn Hudson was more direct about the kind of host the group was getting. “He is unafraid in his artistry,” she said.
Edge has not typically been the Oscars’ chosen register, as recent hosts Seth MacFarlane and Neil Patrick Harris, neither of whom was well-received, quickly learned. Neither garnered a comparatively huge audience either. Rock, on the other hand, has mainstream drawing power. His 2005 turn was watched by roughly 42 million people, which set a high mark for the eight years that followed, unbroken until Ellen DeGeneres hosted in 2014.
But how the show is promoted and received has changed a great deal. Since Rock hosted in 2005, Twitter and other platforms have risen, serving both as a welcome watchdog and, at times, an overly zealous bulwark against perceived offenses up on both sides of the race-relations aisle. In short, what could be a very funny Academy Awards could also, to some of those observing it, be a very charged one.
Rock didn’t have to chase any ambulances to land the coveted Oscars role. But there may be plenty of sirens just the same.