The most contentious, scrutinised Oscar season in recent memory is finally over. The awards have been dished out, the red carpet has been rolled up and we can finally stop saying “It’s Leo’s time.” But the most memorable aspect of this awards season had little to do with the actual films. This year, the movies were secondary to the discussion on race – the talk of Tinseltown. The question on everybody’s lips wasn’t so much “who was going to win”, but rather why some people (noticeably) weren’t even nominated. Truly, it seemed the 2016 Oscars was very much defined by diversity – or, more accurately, the lack thereof.
Last night, at around 5:30 p.m. P.S.T., someone ushered a giant elephant into the Dolby Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. It was big, it was loud and it was very – very – obvious. And just as Chris Rock was about to take to the stage, everyone was wondering if he was going address it. Will he? Won’t he? Will he play it safe? Will he knock out a few quips about the films, make a few jabs at the stars and be done with it? Or will he point at the elephant, stare it down and call it out.
For some intoxicated audience members, the elephant began to turn pink. For a few others, they began to turn pink. Rock, dressed conspicuously in a white tux, dived straight into the racial controversy surrounding the Academy Awards: “Is Hollywood racist?” he asked. “You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist” – a phrase spoken from Hollywood’s grandest stage on Hollywood’s biggest night. Uncomfortable laughter started bouncing off the walls – sporadically, mind you – interspersed with a few desperate shots of white, Hollywood liberals laughing, cut together for the televised edit.
But Rock’s monologue was great. It was funny, it was on point and it made everyone in the room feel respectfully chastised for the lack of resolve surrounding Hollywood’s minority problem. The elephant flung its trunk over its shoulder and exited stage right. Rock had delivered.
The elephant was born when the nominations were announced earlier this year and #OscarsSoWhite began trending all over social media. As a result of all twenty acting nominations being issued entirely to white actors, the elephant, with scissors in hand, began cutting the ground from under the Oscars’ feet.
But, on the night, Rock had beaten scissors.
Did he single-handedly salvage the Oscars’ reputation? No. Did he solve racism in America? No – obviously: we live in a world in which the Republican frontrunner, Donald Trump (a.k.a. “Drumpf”), will not publically condemn former Grand Wizard of the K.K.K., David Duke, and yet still rakes in a 49 % approval rating in the polls. But what Chris Rock did do was offer a very thoughtful, very simple appeal to a massive audience across the globe: “It’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”
Hollywood’s minority problem is not a minor problem. It is a major problem – and certainly one not exclusive to Hollywood. The Oscar race shouldn’t belong to a single race. We’re talking about cinema here: a universal art form that encompasses all races, all ethnicities, all genders, languages and cultures. But Chris Rock posed a solution – an ironic solution, considering its connotations. Rock suggested a separate category for black actors (albeit, somewhat flippantly). In other words: imposing segregation. But of course that’s a slippery slope. And where does one draw the line? Segregating Asian-Americans from African-Americas; separating Caucasians from Latinos – such a scenario would guarantee equality, for sure, but it also unnecessarily subdivides art into redundant categories that bare no relation to the production of the art itself. No race has the ability to “act” better than any other. No race has the ability to “direct” better than any other. There’s no need to distinguish between race (or indeed gender) when it comes to filmmaking – or any art form for that matter.
What matters, as Rock said, is opportunity: diverse voices producing diverse stories from diverse points of view. But the only way to achieve that is through targeting the industry, not the awards (as ludicrous as they can be). It’s the industry that has the upper hand. It’s the studio heads and executives that are in charge. They dictate what films get made and by whom. It’s the industry that has the power to make a difference. Award shows can only award. And, as Viola Davis pointed out in her acceptance speech at the Emmys last year, “You can’t win awards for roles that are simply not there.”
But you can create those roles, Hollywood. I know you can. You call yourself “the dream factory”? Well now’s your chance to prove it, because an awful lot of black men and women across the country have a dream – a dream once beautifully and succinctly summarised by the immortal Ms. Nina Simone in her song Mississippi Goddam: “All I want is equality for my brother, my sister, my people and me.”