The story so far: In January, when the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced and not a single nonwhite performer was recognized, a lot of people voiced their outrage about the omissions. The oversights weren’t new for this predominantly white organization, but the intensity and volume of the criticisms were.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which produces the awards, subsequently held a series of unprecedented meetings to deal with the controversy. But the series of reforms it announced that are meant to increase the diversity of its membership have pleased few. Chris Rock, who in October had been brought back to host, was unexpectedly thrust into a controversy that shows no signs of fading.
Here, the chief film critics of The New York Times, Manohla Dargis and A. O. Scott, and the Times critic at large, Wesley Morris, take a look at Sunday night’s Academy Awards ceremony and the greater implications that the Oscar whiteout may have — or not! — on the industry.
MANOHLA DARGIS Our national nightmare is over: The 2016 Academy Awards are history. They were also history, too, just because for a few minutes Chris Rock tore the smiling mask off of the industry. Unlike most Oscar hosts, who just have to ease us through another grindingly dull show, he had a tough job Sunday night because everyone knew he had to confront #OscarsSoWhite, which he initially did pretty brilliantly.
Because while at first it seemed as if Mr. Rock was going to go easy on the room, with soft laughs about the “White People’s Choice Awards,” you could feel the room begin to cool when he started dropping words like “raping” and “lynching.” Rarely have the cutaways to the audience seemed as surreal. It was as if a chasm had suddenly opened between this single black performer and all those increasingly uneasy white people. The industry likes to obscure its racism and sexism, but its inequities and hollow insistence that the only color it cares about is green have become untenable as more people speak out. So, I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed watching that room squirm.
A. O. SCOTT Well, sure, but it also felt as if half the room was enjoying watching the other half squirm. Or maybe everyone in the room was enjoying the thought that everyone else was squirming. Or maybe each white person was enjoying his or her own inner squirm.
We are always eager for affirmations of our own “wokeness.” Which is just to say that Mr. Rock was alert to the contradictory nature of the task at hand. His job was to speak some uncomfortable truths about Hollywood and also, by doing so, to let Hollywood off the hook. He had to be both insider and outsider, scourge and jester, everyone’s best black friend and the person at the party who points out that having a black friend isn’t good enough. He succeeded in all of this by being Chris Rock.
The Oscars are always full of awkwardness and contradiction, and the show is always better when some of the discomfort is allowed to fester, rather than being papered over. No joke Mr. Rock could make would have counteracted the sorry record of the studios on race and gender. And on a day when the political news was all about the Ku Klux Klan, he identified the particular variety of liberal-minded bigotry — the “sorority racism” — that afflicts the movie industry. And then the party went on in the usual way, with most of the diversity supplied by Australians.
WESLEY MORRIS Some of that discomfort came in the prerecorded segments, the first of which featured black comedians inserted within this year’s film nominees. Mr. Rock and the writers wanted to mock the ways in which black actors have typically been used in movies and — in the case of Leslie Jones’s pretend attack on Leonardo DiCaprio for not returning her calls — why they haven’t. The sight of Whoopi Goldberg rolling her eyes as Jennifer Lawrence tries to sell home shoppers the mop she invented in “Joy” was powerfully funny. Pushing her own mop around Ms. Lawrence and doing so in front of an exasperated Bradley Cooper, Ms. Goldberg managed an indictment of the power dynamics still at play.
But the sketch doesn’t withstand all critical scrutiny since, for one thing, the bits involving black women don’t transcend their stereotypes. Ms. Goldberg is still Black Lady With a Mop, and Ms. Jones, under the circumstances of “The Revenant,” is still a grizzly bear. However, the surreal bit in which Tracy Morgan recreates “The Danish Girl” as literalism, putting on lipstick and a silken slip and making lusty faces at an actual danish, was the wittiest gag of the night. Even if only farcically, it was about possibility. As social comedy, I found the sketch witheringly funny and weirdly hopeless, nonetheless. In most of the bits in the sketch (Mr. Rock tried on Matt Damon’s role in “The Martian”), black actors complained and the joke — which Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels, as NASA control-roomers, make very funny — is their white counterparts weren’t hearing them scream. In space and elsewhere.
DARGIS All true, yet there was power in that “Martian” bit, with its image of a black man pleading for his life, an appeal that falls on deaf white ears: it felt larger than the Oscars, even if the show has a way of, you know, going on. It was both withering and hopeless, as was Mr. Rock’s entire, impossible gig, which forced him to straddle the very contradictions that make the industry so difficult to grapple with and so seemingly impervious to change. To a degree, he was put in the same position faced by anyone who wants to join an exclusive “sorority,” to borrow one of his metaphors for this white power elite: Do you effect change from the inside (say, by taking their money and mocking them), or do you effect change from the outside?
That’s a tough choice, and I don’t begrudge anyone who works within an industry that has so obviously little interest in difference. One must work. At the same time, if this system insists that your only value is tokenism — to push a janitor’s mop, say, or play the maternal Latina maid, the kooky Asian lady or the robotically supportive wife of any color — you have to ask if this system is worth chipping away at one positive representation and one Oscar nod at a time. A few years ago, Sidney Poitier said that he had only one power throughout his career, which was the power to say, “No, I cannot play that.” I think everyone needs to say no more, including, of course, critics.
SCOTT I agree that we have to be blunter in calling out patterns of exclusion, lazy representation and blatant or covert bigotry. It’s too easy to let those things slide, or worry about being smacked with the wet noodle of “political correctness.” But our job — a job that we perform with fewer constraints and compromises than the academy — is also to affirm beauty and excellence. Which means constantly re-examining the standards and conventions that define those qualities. Sunday night felt so weird and dissonant partly because, on the one hand, the crazy variety of modern popular culture was on vivid display, as it always is. We got to see Kevin Hart and Lady Gaga and Joe Biden and the Weeknd and six quick wins for “Mad Max: Fury Road.”
But at the same time you couldn’t help but be aware of the narrowness, the fustiness, the profound dullness of the event itself, a tedium that rubbed off, often unfairly, on a lot of the winners. The whole evening — as long as a Jacques Rivette movie (and why was he missing from the “In Memoriam” montage, by the way?) — intermittently reminded me why I care about movies. It also reminded me that I care about truth, justice and standup comics. But I’m not sure I’ve ever cared less about the Oscars themselves.
MORRIS And yet here we are gathered around the water cooler unpacking them. I’d love to see an Oscars broadcast years from now when we’re all talking about something else, like the winners. But some people thought that many years ago. The entire conversation is wearing us all down. (Ratings reportedly slid 6 percent. Shoulda nominated “Star Wars” for some big awards.)
We don’t care, and yet somehow we must because there’s a lot at stake. I mean, no Rivette in the necrology montage? What kind of world is this? Well, this world — one in which our host stood up for less racism, then cracked a joke about the academy’s accountants being cute Asian kids who make our iPhones. Comedy’s messy!
But there was critique built into the production of the show — and not just permitting the anti-Black History Month scold Stacey Dash to come out and embarrass herself. Most of the nonwhite presenters are on ABC television shows (Kerry Washington, Sofía Vergara, Priyanka Chopra) or from other countries where, in the cases of Ms. Chopra and Lee Byung-hun, who presented the foreign-language Oscar with Ms. Vergara, they are actual movie stars.
Then there were the best picture nominees themselves. In their own ways, most of them were about white men abusing their power, in “Spotlight” and “The Big Short,” obviously, but also in “Room” and “Mad Max.” Then there’s “The Revenant,” a movie that isn’t smart enough to be the critique of the white man’s uncomfortable place in the American West that it thinks it is. Hollywood knows it’s got a white-male-ness problem. And the academy, having let Mr. Rock M.C. a roast, can point out awareness of that problem by giving those movies prizes. It’s the feedback loop that keeps giving.
Correction: February 29, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated when the Academy Award nominations were announced. It was in January, not February.