Chris Rock is the perfect Oscars host for this controversial awards season

One of the biggest questions going into this year's Oscar ceremony isn't whether Leonardo DiCaprio will finally win a lead actor trophy or which one of the best picture nominees will score the night's big prize.

It's WWCD (What Will Chris Do)?

Speculation has been building for weeks over how the ceremony host Chris Rock will address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has plagued the Oscars since the nominees were announced in January. Voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate any actors of color in the top prize categories.

#OscarsSoWhite: Full coverage of the boycott and Hollywood's reaction

The furor has put Rock, considered one of the nation's hottest comedians, into the hottest seat in Hollywood given that several African American artists, including Will Smith and Spike Lee, announced they would skip the ceremony.

It's a situation that has resulted in Rock, 51, doing what no other Oscar host has done in the past — refusing to do any publicity for the ceremony. Except for a brief appearance at Largo last week to try out some Oscars-related material, he and his writing staff have remained largely underground.

That cone of silence has highlighted the delicacy of Rock's mission: to address the controversy with the right tone but still stay focused on maintaining the spirit of the evening, which is to honor the best film achievements of the year.

The dilemma has prompted commentary from a stream of insiders and observers — ranging from entertainers who have worked with Rock to academics who study race in Hollywood — to predict how Rock will do when the curtain rises at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday.

OSCARS 2016: Full coverage | List of nominees | #OscarsSoWhite controversy

"I think he will definitely be in the pocket," said comedian Chris Spencer, executive producer of BET's hit reality spoof "Real Husbands of Hollywood" on which Rock has appeared. "He will make some people very uncomfortable, but he will also be very, very funny."

Added Lee Bailey, executive producer of EUR/Electronic Urban Report (, a website dedicated to black-related entertainment news and issues. "This is a tailor-made situation for Chris. His stuff has always been about race. He's been known to go hard, and I'd be shocked if he didn't. The Oscars need him more than he needs them. They are in deep doo-doo."

While the comedian will no doubt be armed with the fearless sharp-edged punch that has made him an A-list star — and which he employed when he first hosted the ceremony in 2005 — observers say he will face far more scrutiny than Billy Crystal, Ellen DeGeneres, Seth MacFarlane, Neil Patrick Harris or other previous masters of ceremonies of the Academy Awards.

Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at USC's School of Cinematic Arts, said that Rock's hosting "creates an opportunity for a huge impact. This is something that will really define who Chris is."

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Those who have worked with Rock are confident he'll rise to the occasion. "Chris will have a staff of comedy writers working on his monologue with him, so a lot of thought will definitely go into it," said Franklyn Ajaye, an actor, writer and comedian who was a writer for Rock when the entertainer appeared in the mid-1990s on "Politically Incorrect." "My guess is that Chris will go at it straight in his usual direct and fearless manner. He'll comment on it upfront to make a point, and then not dwell on it the whole night, which would make the evening a downer."

Rock gave a bit of a clue as to what he might do as host when he dropped in unannounced last week at the Largo during a comedy night hosted by writer-director Judd Apatow.

The New York Observer's Andy Wang, who was present at the performance, wrote that Rock's material addressed the furor over the lack of diversity among the nominees, adding that Rock had "an impressive arsenal of material" to polish before the show.

The comedian explained why he wasn't abandoning the ceremony, and considered how the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. might react to the issue if he were alive. Wang wrote that Rock riffed on the absurdity of one particular boycott: "That bit included a withering, perfect punchline involving two celebrities, but Mr. Rock knew it was too lewd to get by the Oscars censors."

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Other jokes delivered that night — a reference to the uproar over actresses earning less than actors, suggestions on making the pool of Oscar nominees more diverse — were examples of why Rock still resonates in the comedy world. Jamie Masada, the founder of the Laugh Factory comedy club, called Rock "a doctor of the soul."

Rock, of course, has never been silent on the subject of race. 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).

He has been an equal opportunity provocateur when it comes to unleashing his rants against both whites and blacks. His 1996 HBO special, in which he prowled the stage like an eager boxer during his routine about black people and the N-word, is considered a classic.

Rock wrote a scathing article in the Hollywood Reporter in 2014 denouncing the lack of multiculturalism in Hollywood and calling it a "white industry."

It's that brutal honesty that many feel makes Rock the perfect Oscar host now.

"The Oscars are about the celebration of film, and Chris will uphold that part of it, but he will also talk about us having the opportunity to tell our stories," said Felischa Marye, chair of the Writers Guild of America West's Committee of Black Writers."

Amy Aniobi, a writer who is working on HBO's upcoming comedy series "Insecure," said she has lost interest in tuning into the Oscars until she remembered that Rock was going to be the host. "I was just over it. Then it dawned on me. This is really the best scenario that could happen."

Spencer has already made his plans for Oscar night. "I'm going to have a bunch of people over. Then when Chris' monologue is over, we'll go into another room. I'll have one of my white friends watch the awards, and when Chris is back on, he can call us in to watch."


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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 26, 2016, in the Entertainment section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "In the hot seat - All eyes will be on host Chris Rock and his brand of edge - COUNTDOWN TO THE OSCARS" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe