Because I hate when Black people are dismissed (our ideas and feelings trivialized) when they communicate valid critiques through various kinds of protest, like most Black folk watching, Chris Rock’s opening Oscar monologue got on my last good nerve. It annoyed me for every “old-Black” reason listed here by Colorline’s editorial director (and #professionalblackgirl) Akiba Solomon, and more.
Sunday night, Rock unnecessarily derided Jada Pinkett Smith, used swinging Black bodies to propel a failed attempt at sarcasm, and, essentially, stood in front of the mostly White Oscar audience agreeing with what that mostly White audience already believed to be true: that #OcarsSoWhite (and the many meaningful conversations it created) was unimportant and, basically, a laughing matter.
I found Rock’s commentary incredibly confusing and hypocritical, especially after he recently spoke extensively about the problems Black women face in Hollywood. He argued, in fact, that he’d “…[N]ever done a movie, any movie, the silliest movie, where someone, some studio person hasn’t gone, ‘Does the girl have to be Black?’ It happens every time.” He then went on to assert, “Black women get paid less than everybody in Hollywood. Everybody’s talking about Jennifer Lawrence. Talk to Gabrielle Union. If you want to hear stories, talk to Nia Long. Talk to Kerry Washington. They would love to get to Jennifer Lawrence’s place, or just be treated with the same amount of respect.”
Chris Rock is often critical of race and social justice issues within the U.S. overall, and inside Hollywood particularly. So why would a call to address the overwhelming whiteness of the Academy Awards (yet again) be discharged in the many ways he did as soon as the show opened? Perhaps duty (and that paycheck) called. I get it. We all have to do things we don’t want to for coin sometimes. Hell, I only watched this years Oscars, or any show that doesn’t celebrate my beautiful Blackness, so I wouldn’t get fined.
What #OscarsSoWhite is addressing, and what’s happening in the film and television industry, is happening in the publishing world and in world of music and in visual art spaces all over this nation and beyond. A single story of great White hope is being told over and over again (much Nigerian feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie speaks on in this TED Talk), where White ideology, culture, and life overall is upheld and celebrated, while everyone else’s narratives are violently erased.
When Rock argued that Black folks didn’t protest the imperious whiteness of the Oscars during the Civil Rights Movement because we had “real things to protest at the time,” he, as an actor (and thus an artist) himself, belittles the meaning of art overall—which is to humanize all of us.
Every person of color in this country is fed a steady diet of White piety, prominence and supremacy through every genre of art created, and we cannot begin to believe that doing so has not framed the way we view Whites. White art as propaganda often whitesplains that White people really mean us no harm, and that instances where Whites pillage and murder are individual, the result of one troubled bad apple. Many of us believe this narrative of whiteness we’re constantly served, even when we know that the mass shootings (which seem to be happening daily in the U.S.) are always carried out by White men.
Conversely, when we’re told no stories about people of color (and Black folk specifically, because I’m definitely speaking about Black folk here) through the many genres of art we consume, when Black artists can’t get their various projects—whether novels, films, albums, or visual art exhibitions—financed because these art institutions don’t believe that our stories matter, we’re taking away from the kind of storytelling that combats stereotypes that paint us as lazy, welfare queens, or angry, dangerous, magical Black folk capable of dodging and eating bullets.
Art is political as f*ck.
And if you don’t believe me, ask Don Cheadle. It was recently revealed that he couldn’t get funding for his biopic Miles Ahead, which chronicles the life of the great (and complicated) Miles Davis, without ensuring that a White main character was added to the script. Ask Ava DuVernay (who calls the word “diversity” medicinal, completely lacking emotional resonance). Ask award-winning novelist Sharon Draper.
Ask the many artist who participated in Sunday’s #JusticeForFlint event. Ask any Black artist fighting, with bleeding knuckles and little hope, to tell the stories of Black folk that present us as full human beings, whether #OscarsSoWhite or any moment of protest aimed at dismantling anti-Blackness in the arts isn’t explicitly connected to our current struggle for Black lives. They’ll all tell you that Chris Rock behaved as though he was clueless on Sunday night.
Black films matter. Black art matters. Black stories matter. Because Black lives matter.
Josie Pickens is an educator, cultural critic and soldier of love. Follow her musings on Twitter at @jonubian.