The Oscars – Not in Color This Year

By Bobbie Kirkhart

OscarThere’s always sus­pense at the Oscars, but this year edge-of-the-seat ten­sion will be greater than it has ever been. There is inter­est, of course, in who will win in each cat­e­go­ry, but the real ques­tion promi­nent in the minds of most in the the­ater and in front of the TV is, “What will Chris Rock say?”

This year’s host was announced well before the all-white nom­i­na­tions were, and in a plot wor­thy of the best of Hollywood’s script writ­ers, the Acad­e­my chose maybe the most insight­ful com­men­ta­tor on mat­ters of race and class in Hol­ly­wood, if not the Unit­ed States.

No open­ing mono­logue has ever been so anx­ious­ly antic­i­pat­ed; arguably, no comedian’s mono­logue on an enter­tain­ment show has ever had the same poten­tial for social impact. Of course, like any speech, every­thing hangs on what is said, and it seems every­one in Hol­ly­wood has an opin­ion on what this 50-year old stand-up com­ic-actor-pro­duc­er should say.

The Oscars always come with some con­tro­ver­sy – a best pic­ture, direc­tor, or actor who “should have been nom­i­nat­ed” and wasn’t.  In 2014, there were grunts when there was only one black-themed movie (Sel­ma) among the most cov­et­ed nom­i­na­tions. This year, there are no African Amer­i­cans among the Top 20, and the grunts turned into shouts. Promi­nent among the snubs were Straight Out­ta Comp­ton, a sto­ry of the ear­ly days of hip hop, and the high­ly acclaimed per­for­mance of Will Smith in Con­cus­sion.

As one would expect, there are as many opin­ions about what Chris Rock should say as there are sequins on the red car­pet. Actress Jada Pin­kett Smith has called for a boy­cott. She is like­ly influ­enced by the fact that her hus­band is the afore­men­tioned Will Smith, who joined the boy­cott (reluc­tant­ly?) lat­er. Pro­duc­er-direc­tor Spike Lee – always among the most mil­i­tant in fight­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion – will boy­cott, but it seems as if there will be lit­tle oth­er participation.

Of course, there’s also anti-boy­cott talk: Best actress nom­i­nee, Char­lotte Ram­pling, now regrets say­ing that the boy­cott idea was “racist to whites,” but she said it, nonethe­less. Yet, some of the anti-boy­cott talk is per­son­al. Janet Hubert, who starred with Will Smith in the TV series Fresh Prince of Bel Air, post­ed a video addressed to Jada Pin­kett Smith: “First of all, Miss Thing, does your man not have a mouth of his own with which to speak? The sec­ond thing, girl­friend, there’s a lot of sh*t going on in the world that you all don’t seem to rec­og­nize. Peo­ple are dying.  … And you’re talk­ing about some motherf**king actors and Oscars. It just ain’t that deep.” Whoopi Gold­berg sup­port­ed the state­ment, adding on a more mod­er­ate tone, “Boy­cotting doesn’t work, and it’s also a slap in the face of Chris Rock.”

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The Acad­e­my has rec­og­nized the need for change and is revis­ing its mem­ber­ship stan­dards to bring in more young and minor­i­ty mem­bers. Need­less to say, this pro­voked the old guard. On learn­ing that those who had been inac­tive in the indus­try for ten years or more could lose their vot­ing rights, 50s idol Tab Hunter sur­mised,  “Obvi­ous­ly, it’s a thin­ly-veiled ploy to kick out old­er white con­trib­u­tors – the back­bone of the indus­try – to make way for younger, ‘polit­i­cal­ly-cor­rect’ vot­ers.” Veiled? Back­bone of the industry?

The dom­i­nant opin­ion – among moviemak­ers of all races – seems to be that the Acad­e­my has erred and is right to make cor­rec­tions, but that the real prob­lem is with the stu­dios, who are noto­ri­ous­ly reluc­tant to okay minor­i­ty-themed films, hire non­white pro­duc­tion peo­ple, or cast any­one but whites in race-neu­tral roles. Influ­en­tial star George Clooney not­ed that it has not always been this way and con­clud­ed, “I think we’re going in the wrong direction.”

Rock would cer­tain­ly agree. In a high­ly-acclaimed essay from 2014, he wrote insight­ful­ly and point­ed­ly about inequity in the indus­try. His strongest argu­ment, how­ev­er, was not on behalf of Blacks, but on behalf of Mex­i­cans: “You’re telling me no Mex­i­cans are qual­i­fied to do any­thing at a stu­dio? Real­ly? Noth­ing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because peo­ple are peo­ple, that there’s prob­a­bly a Mex­i­can David Gef­fen mop­ping up for somebody’s com­pa­ny right now.”

So much is wait­ing on the stage of the Dol­by The­ater on the night of Feb­ru­ary 28. It will be Rock’s job to make us laugh while he makes sense of this inex­plic­a­ble sit­u­a­tion. It’s a lot to put on his slen­der shoul­ders. This isn’t just about the movies – it’s about the pas­sive prej­u­dice that per­me­ates our entire soci­ety. If any­one is up for the task, Chris Rock is. Chances are he will teach us all some­thing and have us quot­ing him with tears and laugh­ter for weeks – maybe years – to come.

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Bob­bie Kirkhart is vice pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance of Amer­i­ca and serves on the board of Camp Quest, Inc., a sum­mer camp for chil­dren of free­think­ing fam­i­lies. She is a past pres­i­dent of the Athe­ist Alliance Inter­na­tion­al as well as a fre­quent con­trib­u­tor to U.S. freethought publications.