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Oscars 2016: A Night of Hard Truths and Ludicrous Distractions

Chris Rock made Hollywood look at itself—but only for a brief moment.

Kevin Winter/Getty Images

When I think back on the 2016 Oscars months from now, I’ll think of dozens of white people, with a billion more white people staring directly at their faces, trying to chuckle off into the distance while they wait for that asshole cameraman to go away already. As enjoyable as Chris Rock was as host, the smartest aspect of his #oscarssowhite monologue was that it focused its attention outward. It made Hollywood look at itself. But only briefly.

That’s why Rock’s incredible bit about how Hollywood wasn’t “cross-burning racist” but “sorority racist” was such a great one. “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa,” is a terrific line because you could see it in the faces of those responding to the monologue. They were humoring Rock, laughing along with him, yes yes solemn head nod there is a problem no doubt yes yes, but more than anything, they were waiting for the monologue to be over with so they could get back to a normal Oscar show already. They smiled along enough to seem like Not A Part Of The Problem, and then happily got back to their regular scheduled programming of awarding other white people Oscars. 

This is not to say that Rock was not effective, or funny, or that he didn’t take full advantage of the global stage provided him: This was an Oscars that ended with Rock yelling “Black Lives Matter!” into the microphone, for crying out loud. But I’m skeptical of its ability to provoke change, outside of anything solely symbolic. That’s to say: There will absolutely, 100 percent, no doubt be multiple black acting nominees in 2017. I’m still not sure that will make it that immediately easier for black actors to become Kappas, though.

Still, Rock had to try, and it’s worth noting that, after the monologue, Rock stopped trying to relate to the white audience and began trolling them, most obviously with the Stacey Dash cameo. That was perhaps the best example of our pop cultural divide the evening had to provide: Black people were amazed at the audacity of having a Fox News contributor who had recently called for the eradication of Black History Month given a global stage, and white people all blinked and looked confused. Rock had a nearly impossible job—as my colleague Tim Grierson put it, he had to deal with the Ricky Gervais problem, that universal expectation heading in that he would have to Be Outrageous—and pulled it off as best as he possibly could. He was able to speak truth to power without crossing the line into open insurrection: He made black people feel good that he was there and saying what he was, and he made white people feel bad … but not too bad.

Rock treated the gig like an outsider given the microphone to storm the gates for a few hours, which of course he was, but this is the great joke of the Oscars: Everyone feels like an imposter out there. The Oscars are the biggest, most glamorous, most artificially self-inflated event American culture has to offer, and no one with their own story and background will ever feel at one with it; the Oscars exist to be punctured. The goal is to get out of there with your dignity, and your core fanbase, intact. It is one of the rare shared experiences Americans have—it’s a live telecast in a vernacular everyone understands, allowing us all to discuss it and mock it in real time—and it’s both the most ridiculous and the one most prone to taking itself insanely seriously. Rock told some hard truths about Hollywood, particularly in his plaintive, almost pleading, “We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities.” And then an hour later he was actually saying the words, “And now, to present Best Animated Short, the Minions.” 

You do what you can with a ludicrous gig like that. Rock did as well as anyone could have reasonably expected him to do and came away looking brave and smart and candid. Then Leonardo DiCaprio won his Oscar and wasn’t Brie Larson charming and did you see how they treated that Mad Max woman who won and OMG are Reese Witherspoon and Tina Fey wearing the same dress, and we all moved on with our lives. The Oscars are a big stage to talk about big things. But they are not a weighty stage to talk about weighty ones. Chris Rock brought up vitally important issues that Hollywood needs to deal with. But it came on a night that exists solely to ignore anything important, to suffocate them all with endless distraction. Rock did the best he possibly could. But the job is too big for him. The job would be too big for anyone.

Other takeaways:

  • The biggest upset of the night was Mark Rylance winning Best Supporting Actor over Sylvester Stallone, a longtime English stage actor who was the unquestioned highlight of Steven Spielberg’s Cold War spy thriller. (His transition to film is going well; he now has an Oscar, and his next role is playing The BFG in Steven Spielberg’s adaptation of the Roald Dahl book this summer.) Considering Stallone’s four-decade career that has netted more than $2 billion in box office receipts, and the fact that he replayed his most famous character in a new and interesting way (albeit in a film I argued would have been better with a lot less of him) made many think he was a lock here. Considering that Stallone’s last four movies before Creed were two Expendables movies, a boxing movie with Robert DeNiro and a Serious Drama co-starring Nelly and Kelsey Grammer, this was probably Stallone’s final chance at an Oscar. Maybe he can make a Revenant sequel and fight a bear.
  • I joke, but for all the memes about Leonardo DiCaprio at last being rewarded with the Oscar he apparently wanted so desperately, he is good in The Revenant (Grierson and I ranked it No. 8 among a vast career of excellent performances), and now that he has one, we can all move on with our lives. It still strikes me as strange that an international movie star using his clout to make ambitious, challenging films on an annual basis turns into “he just wants an Oscar so badly, what a joke!” but maybe winning one will finally knock it off.
  • The best line from a presenter was Louis C.K.’s joke about the Oscar for Best Documentary Short “being driven home in a Honda Civic.” He’d make an excellent host himself at some point, and you can be sure he will be asked.
  • The evening ended with another surprise, with Spotlight winning Best Picture over the heavily favored The Revenant and stopping Alejandro G. Iñárritu from becoming the first man to direct two consecutive Best Picture winners. In retrospect, Spotlight’s victory shouldn’t have been that much of a surprise; it was the early favorite after rapturous applause at the Venice Film Festival back in September and only lost steam because of The Big Short’s cathartic appeal and The Revenant’s box office success. But it’s an expertly made and constructed film with a likable, understated cast, and it allows everyone to feel better about themselves—and the ability for storytellers to make a difference—in a way the other two major contenders did not. It was a bit strange to see journalists all over Twitter pat themselves on the back once the film won—your ability to write a recap of an Illinois-Minnesota basketball game or an episode of The Bachelor does not give you a co-byline on the Boston Globe stories, and it is worth remembering that this film that supposedly speaks so well of the world of journalism in fact takes place in 2003—but it’s a film that’s well respected and well regarded and, all told, well worth winning. 
  • The emotional high point of the evening was surely Lady Gaga’s performance of “Until It Happens To You,” from The Hunting Ground, a documentary about campus rape culture. The song, written by eight-time nominee Diane Warren, is powerful, combative, and even subtle in a way the movie isn’t always, and once you heard the performance—after the freaking Vice President showed up to introduce it—it was fair to assume the song and Warren would be rewarded. (Particularly considering two of the other Best Song nominees weren’t even invited to perform.) But nope! Best Song, inexplicably, went to Sam Smith’s song from Spectre, which not only wasn’t the best song of the year, it wasn’t even the best Bond song written for that movie. (That would be Radiohead’s version, which producers rejected in favor of whatever it was Sam Smith was trying to do.)
  •  Your early 2017 Oscar nominee predictions: Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk, Manchester-by-the-Sea, Silence, The Circle, and The Birth of a Nation, the Nate Parker film that dominated Sundance and, one suspects, will make next February feel more like a racial bloodletting, metaphorical and otherwise, than anything Chris Rock could have possibly pulled off.

Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly for the New Republic and host a podcast on film, Grierson & Leitch. Follow them on Twitter @griersonleitch or visit their site