When he does his occasional stand-up routine, Rock asks this question about the Academy Award show: “What straight black man actually sits there and watches the Oscars? Show me one!”
Chris Rock may not watch it, but a month from now he’ll be hosting the Oscars, and everyone seems to be offering advice about what he should or should not say. Since so many gurus are nattering at him, I thought I’d chip in.
First, Chris should be sure to show up. Boycotting is not his style. Besides, as Ricky Gervais told him, “This sh*t is live. You can do some serious damage.” Chris is smarter than Ricky, and his “damage” will be a lot more interesting.
Second, he shouldn’t throw out his original speech and fire his writers, as Reginald Hudlin, his co-producer, hinted. None of the rhetoric of the past week should alter his strategy. Bob Hope, a frequent Oscar host, once confessed he “kept an earthquake emergency kit with food, water and spare writers.” There’s been no earthquake here, just a minor tremor.
Next, Chris must stand by his recent assertion that “Hollywood is a white industry just like the NBA is a black industry.” That’s a valid point, except that the NBA is better run. Movie admissions have been drifting down, because movies, unlike basketball, don’t appeal to a wide enough swath of the community. And overseas distributors offer lower guarantees for films with black casts, a policy that impacts the wages (and job opportunities) of actors.
He should also remind his audience that black actors aren’t being given a shot at good roles. He once pointed out that Chiwetel Ejiofor was likely not on the list for Fifty Shades Of Grey – a valid suspicion. On the other hand, J.J. Abrams went to a lot of trouble to write a part for John Boyega in Star Wars – too bad other casting directors don’t seem to notice him.
Further, he should remind the corporate heavies at the Oscars that the major studios must hire at least one African American studio chief, even though that may not be doing the candidates any favor. Black filmmakers like Tyler Perry and Will Packer can likely do better work and make more money on their own rather than submitting to a corporate chokehold at a Comcast or Viacom, but still there’s an important symbolism in being a studio boss.
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In this vein, I admire the fact that, when Chris makes an indie movie, he tends to cast himself in roles that could be played by a white or black actor. In Top Five, for example, he played a comedy star who was bored with being funny and thus went off to make a vanity project — which bombed. A lot of white guys have done that, too, but Chris did them one better: He got a bidding war going for the rights to Top Five, finally selling it for an advance of $12.5 million at the Toronto Film Festival. To be sure, the movie bombed, too, just like the movie in the movie, but there’s nothing wrong with getting the last laugh.
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But, returning to the advice mode, here’s a point he could make at the Oscars that might be enlightening for his worldwide TV audience: The whole process of choosing a “best picture” is an anachronism. This year’s favorites are a case in point: The Big Short is the best dark comedy, The Martian the best sci fi epic, The Revenant the best survivalist drama, Spotlight is the best socially aware drama and so forth. All of these top contenders excel in their own way but have nothing to do with one another. There is no clear “best.”
So Chris might tell his audience to spread their support around. Filmgoers worldwide are subconsciously boycotting too many good films, and that’s a boycott we don’t want to encourage.
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