I didn’t want to watch the 88th Academy Awards any more than I wanted someone to pluck out my eyes and roll them around in cat litter. This year was the first time I had seen any award show entirely. My girlfriends and I decided the Oscars created an opportune moment to flex our rhetorical analysis muscles and examine the reaction to Jada Pinkett Smith’s boycott.
Chris Rock came on the scene hot––not “oh damn, he’s fine!” type of hot, but more of a “I don’t give a damn what anyone has to say” hot. He addressed the implicit racism ingrained in the Academy by relating it to the way sororities function. Racism in Hollywood isn’t cross-burning or the KKK, it’s motivated by implicit biases—even the nicest, most liberal, most pro-Obama white folks can be guilty of it because we live in a capitalistic country that drives racism, sexism, shadeism etc. I was rooting for Chris Rock; he was hilarious and honest, or so I thought.
The show took a dark turn when Chris posed the question of why now––after 88 years––Black people are deciding to boycott the Academy. Chris Rock attempted to answer his own question by explaining that Black people had real things to protest during the 60s, like lynchings and rapes, and now, we have too much time on our hands. Perhaps we should ignore that nine Black churchgoers were mercilessly shot down while in prayer last summer; police brutality has hit a new high with a Black man being shot down every twenty-eight hours by a cop, vigilante or armed security; the prison industrial complex and educational institutions are ruthless on Black bodies. But according to Chris Rock, these aren’t real problems. Chris Rock didn’t stop there, and things got exponentially worse. “When your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short,” said Chris Rock as laughter moved throughout the audience. Lynching is one of the most traumatic and painful experiences of African Americans. Thousands of Black bodies swinging lifelessly and having their body parts auctioned off as paraphernalia to white crowds is dark, unjustifiable and anything but hilarious.
If drawing a derailing comparison between the Black Lives Matter movement and the Civil Rights Movement wasn’t enough, Chris Rock decided to draw a crude comparison between Rihanna’s underwear and Jada Pinkett Smith’s call for a boycott of the Oscar’s. This was nothing less than misogynoir. Many people have accused Jada of using her platform to bitterly speak out against the Oscars because of Will Smith’s alleged nomination snub; however, Jada isn’t wrong. 94% of Oscar voters are white and 76% are men—this should be question. For Chris Rock to use Rihanna’s sexuality as the butt of a joke meant to silence Jada Pinkett Smith is tasteless and yes, sexist.
After Chris Rock’s opening monologue, I quickly said, “Fuck this,” sat in a corner and proceeded to do other work. However, the Academy Awards clumsily continued. Staunch conservative and Fox News host, Stacey Dash, made a surreal appearance on the stage and quickly exited after waving her hand, saying something along the lines of “Happy Black History Month” and referring to Black people as “her people”. It was confusing. In a parody that also featured Tracy Morgan and Whoopi Goldberg, Leslie Jones spoofed The Revenant by tackling and yelling at Leonardo DiCaprio’s character as a scorned, angry black woman while imitating an animal. Depicting Black people, especially Black women, as animals creates a hegemony that Black people are super humans, capable of withstanding unworldly abuse. Angela Bassett gave a Black History Month Minute, which was set up to acknowledge the work of Will Smith. Angela Bassett mentioned Will Smith’s movies and range in acting skill. In a twist that was maybe satirical, but definitely messy, the Black History Month Minute was attributed to Jack Black instead.
Later, three Asian kids with briefcases and business suites were brought on stage and introduced as PricewaterhouseCoopers accountants. Chris Rock ends the joke saying, “If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone, which was also made by these kids.” Using little children to joke about Asian stereotypes and child slave labor is disgusting. The erasure of Asian Americans in discussing the lack of diversity in the Oscars was perturbing, but to exploit Asian children for a Trump-esque joke was crass and insensitive.
The Oscars concluded with Chris Rock shrugging his shoulders and apathetically saying, “Oh yeah, and Black Lives Matter.” At that moment, it became clear why Dave Chapelle quit comedy, because the Oscars were all about the wrong type of laughter. Using comedy as a medium to address social justice can work at times, but when satire targets racial disparity it can also fall on its face. While white people were laughing, I was cringing and holding my breath.
I expected a lot more from Chris Rock, particularly because pro-Black rhetoric had been reverberating so well this past month. Beyonce killed it at the Super Bowl as her dancers were adorned in Black Panthers regalia and Kendrick Lamar gave a stunning performance at the Grammy’s performing “Alright,” a song that has been embraced as the Black Lives Matter anthem. Even Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu called out the racism of the Oscars, calling it “tribal thinking”. I have seen so many celebrities step up, when Chris Rock stepped down.
Alexandria Ellison is a 3rd year Political Communications B.A. candidate from Boston, MA.