One way Chris Rock proved how much Hollywood needs black actors on Oscar night was with an extended clip showing what some of last years best movies could have been like if they employed actors of color. For Joy, Rock had Whoopi Goldberg, in a janitor’s jumpsuit, interrupt the scene where Jennifer Lawrence demonstrates Joy Mangano’s new Miracle Mop. Later, Leslie Jones mauls Leonardo DiCaprio in a scene from The Revenant, accusing the newly-minted Oscar winner of ignoring her calls. It was devastating commentary that jibed perfectly with Rock’s thesis for the night: Black people want opportunities.
Things got muddled with the clip’s final scene, though. In a spoof on The Martian, Rock himself plays NASA botanist Mark Watney, who’s just been marooned on Mars. "I’m right here, motherfuckers!" he shouts, as Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig debate leaving their black astronaut there to rot. The punchline here is that The Martian wouldn’t have been much of a movie if Watney were black. The trouble here is that, though the film received plenty of criticism for its treatment of people of color, black people weren’t erased. Donald Glover’s character is the one who devises the plan to rescue Watney, and it’s hard to believe Chiwetel Ejiofor’s mission director wouldn’t be in the room. The film is actually exceptionally diverse, but it was Asian roles like Mindy Park, played by Mackenzie Davis, that were whitewashed or miscast. But Rock wasn’t hosting to expose that kind of erasure.
Rock ignored non-black people of color at the Oscars
Diversity and inclusion were very much the theme for Sunday night’s ceremony, and as host, Chris Rock set out to take Hollywood to task for excluding top talent. There was power in his saying, "Damn right Hollywood is racist," because it’s absolutely true. But the conversation he lead centered around black performers and excluded everyone else. The nuance in people like Asif Kapadia being up for major awards was ignored, allowing Rock to maintain his focus on the explicit issue of black representation. When non-black people of color are rendered invisible by one of the biggest comedians in the world, the call for inclusion rings hollow.
Rock did a great job setting the tone for the night in his opening monologue, calling the event the "White People’s Choice Awards." Much of the comedy drew necessarily from the #OscarsSoWhite movement that exploded in the wake of the the nominee announcement in January. And at a time when issues affecting black people — like police shootings and mass incarceration — have become politically resonant, it mattered that Rock spoke for them in front of an industry that routinely casts them aside. It mattered that he vouched for Michael B. Jordan’s performance in Creed. It mattered even more that he ended the show by shouting "Black Lives Matter" before walking offstage to Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power."
But the controversy was never about solely black people in cinema. According to #OscarsSoWhite creator April Reign, it was always meant to unite all people of color under a single banner and raise awareness for the cause. "There are so many communities that need better representation in film," Reign told Black Girl Nerds last month. Indeed, only 1 percent of Asian actors have received Oscar nominations in the awards’ 88 year history. That fact sparked a new hashtag of its own on Sunday:
Rock evidently doesn’t know that. Instead, he trotted out three Asian children as the Academy’s accountants, the kind of stereotyping that clashed with the overall messaging of the evening.
Oscar winners like Asif Kapadia and Emmanuel Lubezki deserve recognition
There’s no question that the racism facing black people in America is particularly violent and destructive. The Academy deserves to be ridiculed for not nominating a single black actor, director, or producer this year. But it also deserves criticism for nominating so few Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans every year, and Rock whiffed on that opportunity at every turn. He could have shouted out the Oscar-winning Amy. The Revenant was a triumph for director Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, and both hail from Mexico. All these achievements were done by people of color. In focusing on black and white, Chris Rock missed a chance to celebrate them. They deserved recognition from their host just as much as the black men and women he heralded that night.
Watch Chris Rock's opening monlogue: