Going into Sunday night’s Academy Awards, the big question was not about who would win what award, but how scathing host Chris Rock would be while presiding over a show mired in #OscarsSoWhite controversy. This year, the academy failed to nominate one person of color in any of the acting categories for the second year in a row, while largely ignoring films like Creed, Straight Outta Compton, Beasts of No Nation, and Chi-raq. The academy itself responded to the lack of diversity with a set of rule changes designed to make its voting body more varied, but it was extremely fortunate to have already secured Rock’s services as the night’s emcee. At least the Oscars did not have to compound its diversity problems by leaving the show in the hands of a white guy.
But Rock approached his hosting gig with grander ambitions than being a solution to the academy’s PR problems. Rock did not just give an edgy monologue about race to a largely white audience tittering uncomfortably and leave it at that, inoculating the academy and its attendees from the charge of being totally out of touch while allowing them to go on with business as usual after 10 minutes of razzing. Instead, the monologue was just the beginning. Rock proceeded to raise the issue of #OscarsSoWhite throughout the night in funny, provoking, and lively ways. He ensured that the members of the academy stayed on the hook, instead of helping them get off of it.
As for that monologue: Rock built to a powerful point, that Hollywood racism is a kind of “sorority racism,” a soft racism of exclusion practiced by liberals with good intentions who nonetheless deny people of color opportunities because they don’t “belong.” But Rock’s path to that point was idiosyncratic and ornery. It included a swipe at Jada Pinkett Smith for boycotting this years Oscars—“like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited!”—that dismissed the merits of an Oscar boycott. It included the contention that black people had not previously protested the Oscars (which is not the case) because, “We had real things to protest … When your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.” Here Rock was, talking openly about America’s history of lynching, while also suggesting—in the Black Lives Matter moment— that there is nothing “real” to protest. And yet, just minutes later, Rock made this joke: “Things are going to be a little different at the Oscars. This year, in the In Memoriam package, it’s just going to be black people that were shot by the cops on their way to the movies.” Rock’s monologue, in other words, was not a simulacra of edginess. It was not about a topic that simply makes people, especially white people, uncomfortable. Rather, it was the product of a specific comedic mind, a singular perspective not sanded down for the occasion.
Rock kept going from there. He invited audiences to consider black actors’ exclusion from roles in a very funny bit that re-imagined some of this year’s movies with black people. He had Angela Bassett star in “Black History Month Minute,” which seemed like it was going to honor Will Smith—a bit of Jada trolling—only to honor Jack Black. But Rock didn’t focus only on black people in the movie business; he wanted the show to consider black people more generally, from the all-black Girl Scout troupe he brought out to sell Girl Scout Cookies, to the moviegoers in Compton who, like most Americans, had never heard of Bridge of Spies or Trumbo but had their own Oscar speeches prepared.
Rock consistently went out of his way to signal to black audiences that he was speaking to them and not just to the white people assembled in the Dolby Theatre, sprinkling the show with Easter eggs for black people. The Stacy Dash joke, wherein Stacy Dash came on stage and said, “I cannot wait to help my people out. Happy Black History Month,” landed thuddingly in the room, but was basically a black Twitter in-joke (explanation here). It wasn’t particularly funny even if you “got” it, but Rock’s willingness to do it demonstrated that he wasn’t just considering white viewers. Ditto for hip-hop references in Rock’s spoof of The Martian and the two cracks about Suge Knight, played by an actor who was straight-jacketed in one of the theater’s balconies. (As for why there were no Trump jokes: The entire show was so fundamentally oppositional to Trump’s viewpoint, there was no need to insult him. The show itself was the insult.)
Rock’s energy and his involvement in the entire night—hosts have tended to disappear after the monologue—as well as a welcome unpredictability in many of the winners made the show much livelier than it has been in recent years. The Oscars will always be too long and will always reach a deadening point, but this show took much longer to get to that point than usual, and Rock is almost exclusively to thank for that.
This being the Oscars, there will always be things to complain about, even if, thankfully, one of those things is not The Revenant being Best Picture. For all the night’s concern with diversity, there was a really bad “Asian and Jewish people are good with math and money” joke that was not bettered for involving cute kids. Rock made a handful of dismissive, sexist cracks (“Carol was the third best girl-on-girl movie” he saw this year.) No white actors acknowledged #OscarsSoWhite, which I would like to think is more a sign of their anxiety at saying something all wrong than a lack of caring. Some cynical soul might even see the entire show as a kind of overcompensation, an Oscars full of diverse montages, presenters, and sketches all papering over its fundamental lack of diversity. But it seems to me that Rock and Oscars did exactly what needed to be done: showed that diversity makes for better, stronger entertainment.
Read all of Slate’s coverage of the 2016 Oscars.