There is no better way to tell the hard truth than with a joke.
First, the audience laughs. Then they think “why is this funny?” Then they get your point. Then they change.
That’s why Chris Rock’s Oscars monologue was so telling, while Motion Picture Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs’ apology was so pathetic. Humor wins people over in ways that serious arguments never can.
Here are some of Rock’s most revealing jokes, (text from the transcript in The New York Times). They’re a lot funnier and more incisive since we know who Rock is speaking to — not us, but the full array of Hollywood power and privilege in the theater audience. (The full video is below.)
You realize if they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job. So y’all would be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now. [First rule of humor: start by making fun of yourself.]
It’s the 88th Academy Awards. It’s the 88th Academy Awards, which means this whole no black nominees thing has happened at least 71 other times. O.K.? You gotta figure that it happened in the 50s, in the 60s — you know, in the 60s, one of those years Sidney didn’t put out a movie. I’m sure there were no black nominees some of those years. Say ‘62 or ‘63, and black people did not protest.
Why? Because we had real things to protest at the time, you know? We had real things to protest; you know, we’re too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother’s swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short. [In a few short sentences, Rock puts the race issue in historical perspective — a point that’s been lacking in earnest #OscarsSoWhite discussion so far. Only a black man could make this point.)
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. [#BlackLivesMatter more than actors.]
But here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know, everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? Is Hollywood racist?
You know, that’s a…you gotta go at that at the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch-me-some-lemonade racist? No. No, no, no.
That’s right. Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood is racist. But it ain’t that racist that you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist.
It’s like, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.” That’s how Hollywood is. [Demonizing Hollywood power won’t change things, but this might. Producers, directors, and casting directors will remember this bit the next time choose an actor. And it will take only two words: “sorority racist.”]
What I’m trying to say is, you know, it’s not about boycotting anything. It’s just, we want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.
That’s it. Not just once. Leo gets a great part every year and, you know, everybody, all you guys, get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?
Rock is on the inside of Hollywood. That’s why he gets to say this stuff. He may be angry, but more than that he’s funny. And that’s why he may actually change things.