On March 27, 1973, Marlon Brando refused to accept his Academy Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Don Corleone in The Godfather. He had Native American actress Sacheen Littlefeather attend instead. Declining the statuette when it was presented, Littlefeather delivered part of a very poignant speech Brando penned critiquing the way the film industry, and society overall, denigrates and erases the indigenous community.
Forty-three years later, not much has changed. Studies reveal what the less oblivious among us have already recognized: the film industry preserves an “epidemic of invisibility” that marginalizes non-whites. This isn’t particularly surprising, as it’s an age-old problem mirroring the very same culture that’s allowed Donald Trump to become a viable presidential candidate.
Still, Blacks continue to toil and achieve excellence within this system. So after the Academy decided on an all-white award pool of actors for a second straight year, the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite was resurrected as a means to object to and call-out what appears to be the neglect or devaluation of contributions made to the film industry by Blacks.
Enter comedian Chris Rock, who had been picked to host the show in October, well before the nominations were announced.
I didn’t envy the position this social context of protest and controversy placed him in. People were eager to see what the outspoken comedian would say about these issues. Some even hoped for a “Littlefeather moment” during what was sure to be Rock’s skewering of Hollywood’s continued disregard for the herd of elephants in the room and the frustrations that propelled #OscarsSoWhite.
Now, I’ve never been one to be preoccupied with the gratuitous spectacle of award shows, so it wasn’t until after it aired that I became aware of what had transpired. This prompted me to review and analyze the event in order to see what all the fuss was about.
My first reaction was similar to that of activist DeRay McKesson:
— deray mckesson (@deray) February 29, 2016
Rather than being a response to something awe-inspiring, his “wow” (and the tone of later tweets) translated as, “Are you serious?” I too was disappointed beyond words.
It isn’t about whether or not Rock was funny, it’s about at what cost and at whose expense. American academic Robert McKee once said, “Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.” What we say matters. The bigger the platform, the more rumble and reverberations caused by our words.
The fractal wrongness of Rock’s commentary can be encapsulated in the way he contrasted the film industry’s racism to the horrifying racism of a grandmother being lynched—to which the audience responded with laughter. As if the former, physically brutal context somehow invalidates the racism today. As if the two situations don’t have a common root cause.
Rock’s assessment that “racism is bad, and inclusion should totally be a thing” was valid yet superficial. And for some spectators, their level of “concern” waned as they were entertained. And when the host cut deeper, it tended to be in ways that congealed false narratives: insinuating “racism isn’t that bad anymore” by delegitimizing objections to the all-white nominations, perpetuating anti-blackness propaganda by continually disparaging Blacks, fueling misogynoir by singling out Jada Pinkett-Smith, and reinforcing the false assumption that we can’t have multiple priorities (i.e., the #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForFlint campaigns).
This wasn’t an insightful, well-articulated lampoon of #OscarsSoWhite but rather a shuck and jive routine that mainly placated to the white-majority audience, his peers, and the establishment that cuts his paychecks. That said, it wasn’t all bad, but he missed the mark far too many times to just give it a pass. And even if none of these things took place, the fact that Chris Rock was party to parading Stacey Dash out to wish the audience a happy Black History Month was insulting enough to write home about given her track record.
Then came the “look we can be diverse!” torrent of presenters. One can’t help but feel this was an attempt at a post-hoc salve. As TheGrio.com’s David A. Love stated in an op-ed:
And while humor has its place, the succession of comedic diversity skits—with Whoopi Goldberg as a janitor, Tracy Morgan as “The Danish Girl,” Chris Rock’s interview with Compton theatergoers, and a Suge Knight lookalike in a prison jumpsuit—gave the impression that white folks were there to laugh at black people’s expense. And when that happens, you run the risk of devolving into a minstrel show.
The rest of the night was decent, although Rock also played to racist tropes with his tasteless Asian joke. But aside from the frivolity of the event, two things stood out to me, or rather two people: Leonardo DiCaprio and Lady Gaga. DiCaprio’s well-meaning (yet, as some pointed out, hypocritical) speech about climate change may have helped promote the urgency of this pressing issue. And say what you will about Lady Gaga’s music, but “Til It Happens To You” is an eloquent song featured in the documentary The Hunting Ground, an important film about rape and sexual assault on college campuses. Both of these issues are significant regardless of how much people wish to shoot the messenger sharing their meaning.
I don’t expect much from these kinds of occasions, which is why I don’t watch them. However, it would have been awesome to have witnessed a Littlefeather moment, where a discrepancy is exposed and explored without also being denigrating and dismissive.