Chris Rock, the Oscars Find a Lucky Pairing

#OscarsSoWhite, meet #OscarsSoContrite.

The one thing more certain at the Academy Awards than a best actor win for Leonardo DiCaprio was that the broadcast would need to address the white elephant in the room: For the second year in a row, no acting nomination went to a minority performer. Hollywood was guilty, and Chris Rock was deputized to carry out the sentence.

[ 2016 Oscar winners | what happened in the show | red carpet looks | the opening monologue ]

He came with his ax sharp. Mr. Rock had been signed to host the awards before the controversy, but it was a lucky pairing of host and subject. You have to wonder if the academy was anticipating it less with dread than with relief. If Mr. Rock flogged Hollywood properly enough, the Oscars — along with the academy’s reforms — might come across as a kind of public penance.
Mr. Rock’s set, which he had been trying out at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles, went straight at it, welcoming the audience to the ceremony, “otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards.”
But his tight opening monologue also efficiently set the controversy in a broader frame. Black performers, he said, had been overlooked in decades past, but “we were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.” This year, he joked, “In the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.”

Mr. Rock, in other words, wasn’t about to let anyone off the hook — including people who had called on him to quit the gig in protest. (“The last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”) His set managed to be evenhanded without being wishy-washy. He reassured the crowd that Hollywood wasn’t “burning-cross racist,” but — as he deftly put it — it was “sorority racist. It’s like: ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa!’”
Nor did the critique end with the monologue. Mr. Rock and the show’s writers made it the narrative engine for an awards show that had few urgent rivalries or tossups. (Though there was a surprise best picture winner, “Spotlight.”) A brilliant follow-up sketch integrated some lily-white scenes in notable movies: Whoopi Goldberg pushing a mop in “Joy,” Tracy Morgan in “The Danish Girl.” Mr. Rock introduced the “shoulda-been nominee,” Michael B. Jordan of “Creed.”

The jokes didn’t always work — a cameo introducing the “minority outreach” official Stacey Dash, a conservative actress who had criticized Black History Month on Fox News, seemed to perplex much of the audience and perhaps also Ms. Dash. And one of the few acknowledgments of Asians in the broadcast was an awkward gag in which Mr. Rock introduced three Asian children as the PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants.
But others landed, like a visit to a Compton movie theater where Mr. Rock asked moviegoers if they’d seen nominated movies like “Bridge of Spies.” A bit of trivia: Mr. Rock did a version of the bit the last time he hosted, in 2005 — but in that year’s monologue, he noted that there were several black acting nominees. History repeats, but it doesn’t always progress.

 

Another bit of repeating history was that, though the show was energized by Mr. Rock’s comedy, it still dragged, with oddly staged bits like a performance by the Weeknd of “Earned It” that featured an aerial performer. Simpler and more powerful was Lady Gaga’s singing “Til It Happens to You,” from the documentary “The Hunting Ground,” surrounded by survivors of sexual assault.

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