Where Chris Rock Went Wrong in His Oscars Monologue

If he’d just stuck to calling out systemic racism in Hollywood, he could have held the industry accountable. Instead, he worked mainly to reinforce the status quo.

Chris Rock speaks onstage during the 88th annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 28, 2016.
Chris Rock speaks onstage during the 88th annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, Calif., on Feb. 28, 2016. Kevin Winter/Getty Images

In Monday’s Washington Post, Daniel Drezner praises Chris Rock’s opening monologue at Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony as “genius.” In particular, he admires the way Rock made fun of and tamed the #OscarsSoWhite elephant in the room. But where Drezner sees the structure of Rock’s routine as a model for how politicians can criticize their own to appeal across party lines, I saw a counterexample of how clever attempts at ideological straddling often just serve to protect insiders against claims for greater equality.

What Drezner misses are the power dynamics at play. Rock, as host of the Oscars, is not analogous to George W. Bush or Barack Obama, a powerful elected official attempting to broaden his base. Rather, Rock is like a weak intermediary struggling to navigate between the conflicting demands of an insurgent subordinate group and a recalcitrant dominant group.

Rock did speak truth to power at points, cleverly drawing attention to systemic issues. He joked that if there had been a vote for Oscar host, the audience would have been stuck with Neil Patrick Harris as the emcee. He teased that Rocky’s narrative of white athletic supremacy in boxing was more like a sci-fi movie than reality. And he nailed the “In Memoriam” bit by suggesting that it would feature only black folks shot by cops on the way to the movies.

More seriously, Rock also plainly stated, “We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.” With each of these jokes or comments, Rock spoke to the frustrations of those who see patterns of bias across Hollywood.

The problem with Drezner’s argument and the rest of Rock’s routine is that the heart of the monologue didn’t just poke fun at those frustrations; it actively delegitimized them. Instead of speaking more truth, Rock kowtowed to power.

Early in the monologue, Rock quoted folks suggesting, “Chris, you should boycott. Chris, you should quit.” His response?

“How come there’s only unemployed people that tell you to quit something, you know? No one with a job ever tells you to quit.”

It’s as if Rock were channeling Donald Trump to reassure the audience that only losers boycott.

Next, Rock asked: “Why are we protesting? The big question: Why this Oscars? Why this Oscars, you know? It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. OK?”

Rock’s answer: “Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest. You know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer.”