Chris Rock: Risky Insights or Flat Notes?

Even before this year’s Academy Award ceremony was over, online columnists were congratulating Chris Rock for his “thorny, meaty, and hilarious” and “brilliant and brave” opening monologue. While he certainly made points that took the Oscars in a better direction – and spared us the nearly revanchist embarrassment of Neil Patrick Harris as host – perhaps I am alone in finding it flat and oddly reassuring when it could have been risky and provocative.

I applaud the way Rock explained and exposed “sorority racism,” but it was also an opportunity to introduce America, using biting satire, to structural racism more broadly. Let’s recognize that Rock is now of a stature where he has little to lose.  So to say that the issues people are facing today are less serious or significant than those of fifty years ago may be, on some level, empirically true, but structural racism, economic and educational equality, mass incarceration, and police violence are still pretty significant manifestations of oppression that continues today.  It’s not just a question of “opportunity.”  It is a question of inequity when it comes to who produces pictures, who are hired in positions of power and decision-making, and who is actually purchasing most of the movie tickets in this country and this world.  Structural racism is perpetuated by those kinds of disproportionate imbalances between the producers, the artists getting work, and the people buying the tickets and buying into the dream.

So no, I don’t think his speech would qualify as “meaty” or as “brave.”  The past couple of weeks, I have been showing my students films about the Black Panthers, Nina Simone, and Tommie Smith and John Carlos – people who risked and sometimes lost everything and yet who are unknown by college students (even adult ones) today.  Compare them to Beyoncé, for example.  I found Rock last night to be not his usual edgy self, but safe, even at times reassuring that we will be able to get past today’s issues.  To me his message included a kind of subtext that said, Hollywood, we know once you provide more opportunity things will get better, without really digging in to why it’s more than just a Hollywood problem and more than just an opportunity deficit.  He had the stage and could have had a moment where the satire was as sharp as he has been in the past, but to me his message was blunted.

But one line really bothered me.  The joke, quoted as “When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short” hit a sour note for me for several reasons.  First, lynching is one of those rare topics that to me, doesn’t belong in any joke or any line that’s going to end with a laugh.  It’s beyond the pale; even if the satire is in the service of a larger, just point.  I know he wasn’t making light of it in any way, but even as a throwaway to an intro, the image is too horrible to even turn around and laugh, no matter the gallows of this particular humor.

But second, and more subtle, is that “best documentary foreign short” actually is very important for all of the same reasons why we struggle for diversity.  Those other categories at the Oscars, especially the documentaries but also foreign films from time to time, are exactly where the issues of racism, violence, injustice and so forth have been openly discussed when Hollywood and mainstream cinema has been way too timid to take risks.  People need to see those documentaries, precisely because they are not trivial, because they do cover lynching. In fact, this very year’s winner for Short Documentary is about honor killings in Pakistan, which are indeed lynchings – some irony there, no?  (Shout out to director Sharmeen Obaid, who generously agreed to meet with me and my students at last year’s Tribeca Film Festival showing of her radiant documentary Song of Lahore.)  Without documentaries like this one, how would we know or learn about killings like this around the world.  While I haven’t seen it yet, I am also eagerly awaiting 3 1/2 Minutes – 10 Bullets which was short-listed this year though not nominated.

To be brave you have to risk something.  To be meaty, brilliant, and thorny you have to provide insights that don’t just voice what most of the people in the room would like to say, but that takes them to a different level of understanding or provokes them to investigate further.  With great respect for Chris Rock’s career, I don’t think Oscar night he achieved either.  Then again, I grew up in an era of Oscar telecasts with acceptance speeches that included congratulations from the Viet Cong, condemnations of fascism, McCarthyism, and anti-Semitism, parallels between U.S. intervention in Central America and Vietnam, the role of American corporations in the nuclear weapons industry and pollution, and more recently speeches by Michael Moore and Errol Morris two years in a row.  None of these Oscar speeches were so celebrated, and in fact most were derided as inappropriate.  Sad to say, but the Salon and Mother Jones commentators may be too young to remember when political protest wasn’t so safe and watered down as it is today.

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On a brighter note, lost in the discussion of the absence of people of color in the acting categories, was the fact that of the award-winning filmmakers themselves, the winners’ circle was actually quite diverse.  The Best Director award went to Mexican director Alejandro Iñárritu for the second year in a row – and in fact the third consecutive year for a Mexican director.  As mentioned above, the winner for short documentary was Pakistani Sharmeen Obaid, winning her second Academy Award as well.  (She may be only the second woman to win two directing awards, after Barbara Kopple – I’ll have to check.)  The animated short film was directed and produced in Chile, and the director of the feature documentary, Amy, is British of South Asian descent.  Also, the producer of the full-length animated film is a U.S. American of Latino background.

While much can still be written about American cultural and cinematic hegemony – after all, there are thriving and major popular film industries coming out of India, Hong Kong, Mexico and many other countries, yet only the American Oscars are seen worldwide and American films exported with more force behind them than other countries’ films – the Oscars are changing with more foreign films and directors getting some recognition, or even work.  Who would have thought that the directors of Amores Perros or Y Tu Mamá También would come to Hollywood and win Oscars?  There is much here in the hidden diversity of Hollywood to be written about later, such as why, for example, no one ever seems to acknowledge that since 1980, there have been 33 women directors who have won Oscars for documentary films, including Barbara Kopple and Laura Poitras. That doesn’t excuse structural sexism – why women get to direct documentaries, and usually shorts, but not feature films – but it does complicate it.  But more on this another day.

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Bill Westerman Written by:

Bill Westerman is an educator and researcher in culture, migration, museums, traditional arts, and human rights

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