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Move over, Ricky Gervais: Chris Rock is the most feared awards show host in Hollywood right now. Even before the outspoken actor/director/comic stepped on the Dolby Theatre’s massive stage to MC the 88th Academy Awards on Sunday night, he had all of the film industry — including the normally unflappable Harvey Weinstein — quaking in its boots. Specifically, attendees fretted about — and looked forward to — how Rock planned to address the raging #OscarsSoWhite controversy that’s swirled around this year’s ceremony since the nominations were announced in January, and immediately engendered controversy for their lack of diversity.
Rock’s cryptic Tweets and Instagram photos leading up to the Oscars only heightened the speculation about his opening remarks. And he wasted no time addressing the elephant in the room with a searing monologue that may well rank up there with the awards’ best: “I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards. If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. You’d all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now!” (Watch it above.)
Rock went on to acknowledge that he had the “craziest” Oscar hosting gig and addressed the debate about whether he should have passed on the assignment. “People [said], ‘You should boycott. Chris, you should quit.’ I realized that it’s only unemployed people who tell you to quit! I thought about quitting, I thought about it really hard. But I realized they’re going to have the Oscars anyway, and the last thing I need is to lose another job to Kevin Hart.”
The jokes didn’t stop there: Rock devoted his entire monologue to the subject of diversity in Hollywood, putting it in context of the Oscars’ long history. “Why this Oscars? It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no-black-nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. You’ve got to figure it happened in the ’50s and the ’60s. And black people did not protest. You know why? Because we had real things to protest at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer.”
He also name-checked the famous black celebrities who declined to attend this year. “Spike [Lee] got mad. Jada [Pinkett Smith] got mad. Will [Smith] got mad. Jada said she’s not coming. Jada boycotting the Oscar is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!” Rock then advanced a modest proposal for how to increase diversity: Make black categories like Best Black Friend. “Winning for the 18th year in a row is Wanda Sykes! Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But not the racism you’re accustomed to. It’s sorority racist.”
At the end of that stemwinder of a monologue, Rock struck a hopeful note. “Things are changing. We got a black Rocky this year. Some people call it Creed, I call it Black Rocky. Rocky takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes. Rocky is a science-fiction movie! There are things that happen in Star Wars that are more believable.” He wrapped it up with a simple plea: “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it.”
Rock wasn’t the only person with stern words for the academy on diversity on Sunday. At a rally held down the street from the ceremony, Al Sharpton told the crowd, “This will be the last night of an all-white Oscars.” Meanwhile, inside the theater, Spotlight’s Supporting Actor nominee Mark Ruffalo, who considered boycotting the ceremony at one point, said, “It’s time for our country to have this discussion in an earnest way. It should be happening here in Hollywood.” And on the red carpet, Kerry Washington remarked that while she sympathized with some of the artists who did boycott the Oscars, “As a new member of the academy … I really want to be part of the conversation to make sure there’s institutional change so that we never have a year like this again.” The academy would certainly like to ensure this year’s controversy doesn’t repeat itself, taking controversial steps to changing its rulebook in order to promote diversity.