Chris Rock put in the performance of his life as host of the 88th Academy Awards – and transformed what had threatened to be the most controversial of ceremonies into one of the very best.
The #OscarsSoWhite controversy that dominated the build-up to the Oscars – which focused on the fact that all 20 nominees in the acting categories were white – led to leading black figures in Hollywood, including director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett-Smith, boycotting the event, while Rock himself faced calls to step down as host.
But rather than shy away from it, Rock used #OscarsSoWhite as the basis for some superbly satirical routines.
In fact he – and, to their credit, the awards producers – made the controversy the dominant theme, while managing to avoid it overshadowing the prize-giving or overly humiliating the A-list audience.
It was a stunningly deft work, and arguably something that no other host could have pulled off.
The tone was set by an astonishing 15-minute opening monologue that was simply thrilling to watch, not only in terms of its stagecraft and confidence, but also the sheer quality of the material.
There was no way Rock was going to try and avoid or play down what had been happening. He began by welcoming people to the “white People’s Choice awards” before saying that “if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job… you would be watching [2015 host] Neil Patrick Harris right now.”
As he continued, his targets got wider – and his points sharper.
He sought to put context around the controversy, arguing that, given this is the 88th Oscars, “this whole non-black nominees thing happened at least 71 times” but that black people did not protest before because they were “too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer”.
“When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short,” he added.
He was scathing about Jada Pinkett-Smith boycotting the ceremony – “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited” and her husband’s lack of appearance on the nominee list for Concussion, saying: “It’s not fair… I get it. It’s also not fair that Will was paid $20m for Wild Wild West.”
But he took on the wider context of racism in American society beyond the Dolby Theater – saying that the In Memoriam montage would just show black people that were shot by the police on the way to the movies.
Finally, he addressed head-on the question of whether Hollywood itself is racist, branding it “sorority racist.”
Its people, including those in the audience, were “the nicest people on Earth”, he said – but they were still not hiring black people. Their attitude, he said, was “We like you Ronda. But you’re not Kappa.”
The arguments made in the monologue defined the rest of the show – something that was particularly noticeable in the pre-recorded material.
Various black actors – Whoopi Goldberg; Tracy Morgan – were inserted into scenes from the best picture nominees, for example, to see how it would have changed them; the alteration to The Martian saw Rock himself simply left on Mars.
Rock also went to Compton to ask black movie fans there what they thought about films like Trumbo, Brookyln, Bridge Of Spies or The Big Short – to be met with baffled looks.
“Are these movies from London?” asked one. It highlighted the gulf between what the Oscars reward and what certain audiences are actually enjoying.
It was not always successful. Actress-turned-Fox News pundit Stacey Dash’s appearance – she came on to say “happy Black History Month” – was baffling to most in the audience, and led to a spontaneous mushrooming of online explainer pieces.
Meanwhile Rock’s daughters going into the audience to sell cookies to the A-listers was sweet, if a little baffling.
But, as he did when first hosting in 2005, Rock kept things moving along at a real clip. This was a stripped-down show that romped along, with far fewer montages than usual and far more good gags.
They did not all come from Rock either. Kevin Hart’s part was so impressive that he looks a genuine contender to be a future host, while Louis CK was on superb form, doing a hilarious routine around, of all things, best documentary short: “This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic.”
By the time Rock was saying Black Lives Matter in his goodbyes, this was already cemented as one of the very best ceremonies of recent years.
The Oscars had no idea when picking Rock that he would have faced such a challenge. But by sheer luck, they turned out to have booked possibly the only person in the world who could have made it work – and that’s precisely what he did.