Chris Rock had a tough gig Sunday night at the Oscars. A furor over the ceremony's lack of diversity among its acting nominees (all of those nominated were white) seemed to overshadow the excitement of the show itself going into the 88th Academy Awards.
Rock, 51, wasted no time in addressing the so-called elephant in the room.
Entering to the tune of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Rock called the evening "the white people's choice awards" and made several jokes about the all-white slate of acting nominees: "You realize, if they nominated hosts, I wouldn't even have this job."
The audience, a who's who of Hollywood elite, reacted with somewhat nervous laughter during his opening monologue, offering a living example of how divisive and complex the issue of race in Hollywood — and America — has become.
The academy sought equilibrium and perhaps a bit of healing by showcasing diversity among its presenters such as Michael B. Jordan and Kevin Hart. They also also dropped continual references, often funny, throughout the show regarding the exclusion of people of color in feature films and in the nominee choices.
One skit in particular showed a fictional scenario where black actors filled the lead roles in films that were up for top prizes this year. Tracy Morgan wore a dress for "The Danish Girl." Jeff Daniels considered leaving Chris Rock out in space for "The Martian."
But Rock also struck a more serious tone during his hosting gig when he asked for more opportunities for blacks, "the same opportunities as white actors."
Rock made race the center of his humor in his first Oscar stint in 2005. His opening monologue touched on the African American nominees that year, who included lead actor nominee Jamie Foxx ("Ray") and supporting actor nominee Morgan Freeman ("Million Dollar Baby"). "It's a great night tonight — we have four black nominees tonight," he said. "It's like the Def Oscar Jam" (both Foxx and Freeman won).
But this hosting round comes at a time when race is at the top of the national conversation. Rock's monologue drew praise from several celebrities in the Dolby Theatre, including winners and nominees.
"I thought it was really great," said Adam McKay, who won an Oscar for best original screenplay along with Charles Randolph for "The Big Short." "I thought it was jabbing at Hollywood and at the same time, even-handed."
Alicia Vikander, who won a supporting actress Oscar for "The Danish Girl," said backstage after winning her award that the comedian "brought up a lot of laughs and reality issues [sic] and I'm very happy he's the host tonight."
Bryan Cranston, who was nominated for lead actor in "Trumbo," gave Rock a big thumbs up.
"If you hire Chris Rock he's not going to pull punches. And that's a good thing," Cranston said as he took a break to sip some water during the show. "He can illuminate the issue with humor in a way almost no one else can. Who else could do what he just did?"
But the praise was not unanimous.
In his opening monologue, Rock asked why the Oscars were so controversial this year when the awards had historically paid little attention to blacks. "Why we protesting? That's the big question, why this Oscars?" Pointing out that there were no protests in 1962 or 1963 when there were no black nominees, he said it was because "we had real things to protest at the time. Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer."
Tweeted going Naked TV: "Did Chris Rock just undermine what people of color are experiencing today by stating, 'back then people had real things to protest?'"
Stephane Dunn tweeted, "Blk people HAD real things to protest Rock? Ask Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, Eric Garner, if we still don't"
Some viewers also noted how Rock did not include minorities other than African Americans in his diversity comments. In turning the diversity controversy into a black and white issue, he appeared to ignore other people of color, including Asians, Latinos and Asian Americans.
The issue also sparked the most befuddling and awkward comic bit of the evening when Rock, talking about changes the academy was making to increase diversity, introduced "the new director of our minority outreach program...Stacey Dash!"
Dash, whose most famous film credit was costarring in the 1996 teen comedy "Clueless," has drawn attention during the last few years for lashing out at President Obama, black politicians, BET and the NAACP Image Awards. As a commentator for the conservative for Fox News, she made headlines last month when she said she wanted to eliminate Black History Month and BET.
When Dash came out on stage, it was clear from the tepid response that many in the audience were clueless as to who she was. Their relative silence spoke volumes about the crowd's awareness of the recent battles being waged in the media over race relations in the U.S. and over the Oscar nominees.
"I cannot wait to help my people out," announced Dash. "Happy Black History Month." She then exited to little response.
The evening ended with Rock inviting the audience to the BET Awards next summer, adding a final shout-out to #BlackLivesMatter.
As the credits rolled, Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" played again as a crowd of mainly white winners congratulated each other, and Rock, on stage.