Did The Oscars Snubs Prove Chris Rock’s Point About Fighting In front of White Folk?
The question won’t sit well with the many people who disliked Rock’s clapback Netflix special Selective Outrage, an uneven hour that’s been thinkpieced to oblivion since its debut. But if you watched last night’s broadcast of the 95th Academy Awards, you might have noticed that it lacked the Black star power that defined last year’s show, right up until Will Smith took offense at a joke and knocked the smirk off Rock’s face…in front of white people.
The Great Black Snub:
Black nominees, including Rihanna (for best original song for Lift Me Up from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever) and Angela Bassett (for best supporting actress in the same movie), left empty handed. Aside from Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue jokes about Smith (“If anyone in this theater commits an act of violence at any point during the show, you will be awarded the Oscar for best actor and permitted to give a 19-minute long speech,”) and Questlove’s ironic presentation of the award for best original feature documentary–the category he won last year and which Rock was presenting when he got slapped–last night’s theme for Black folks could have been a play on the title of last night’s biggest winner. We got Nothing, from No One, All At Once.
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And that brought me back to Rock’s attempt at a literal mic drop moment at the end of his special, when he told us that he didn’t hit back at Smith, “...because I was raised. And you know what my parents taught me? Don’t fight in front of white people.”
Whatever you thought of his delivery of that particular joke, or of his material overall–the criticisms range from the oft-repeated idea that Rock is a misogynist to the observation that jokes that would’ve worked in his early 2000s heyday fall flat in 2023–it should’ve been clear from the start that Rock’s takes on race, gender or his relationship to whiteness as a rich, Black man, wouldn’t be a master class in comedic evolution. Rock is a 58-year-old comic who hinged a bit on the fact that he’s rich enough to send his daughter to an elite private school, and to influence said school to expel her in the service of her learning that her father’s money won’t always protect her from her Blackness. The point was that Chris Rock is rich, but also old enough to maintain a fear of white power and its ability to snatch away the fruits of any hard-earned Black privilege.
Don’t Fight In front of White People
Does that invalidate the ugly hint of truth in his parents’ admonition against conflict in front of Caucasians. Generations of Black folks have received, if not that warning, something similar, the ethos of which has always been that even the smallest act of individual public misbehavior risks consequences on the group. It’s the thought that underpins every quip that someone just set us back by landing in a viral video for doing something silly or embarrassing. It’s what guides that respectability politics that so many of us rage against. We know that no amount of good manners will protect us from abuse, neglect or exclusion.
But we’ve also always lived with the knowledge that to the extent that progress is measured by access to white spaces like the Academy Awards, Grammys, Corporate America, the Ivy League or the NFL, that that access is perpetually tenuous and revocable. And it’s difficult to view last night’s Oscars as something of a revocation.
Last year’s ceremony was as close to a fete for Black culture as the Academy had ever gotten. Smith, a leading man for decades, finally took home a Best Actor statue. Questlove’s “Summer of Soul” got its due. Two Black women, Wanda Sykes and Regina Hall, held down hosting duties with Amy Schumer. Will Packer co-produced the show. And this year, it was all gone.
We got a hint from none other than Smith himself that this might be coming, that it crossed his mind that his decision to take the stage and slap Chris Rock might be the fight in front of white people that undid everything. “I hope the Academy invites me back,” he said, accepting the Best Actor award. Somewhere, in the back of his mind, had to be the idea that his eventual 10-year disinvitation might also be a shadow ban for the culture.
It’s easy to believe that both Rock and Smith were watching and wondering if last night might have been the start of it.
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