Comedian Chris Rock launched his return stint as Oscar host on 28 February by immediately and unabashedly confronting the racially charged elephant in the room – the furore over the all-white field of performers nominated for Hollywood's highest honours. In an opening monologue peppered with biting, no-holds-barred commentary about discrimination pervading the film industry, Rock set the stage for a night of running gags that repeatedly returned to themes of racial politics.
In doing so, he transformed a glittering awards show long known for self-reverential pomp into a 3 1/2-hour live telecast punctuated by not-so-subtle satire riffing on issues of inclusion and diversity raised by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite social media campaign and the Black Lives Matter movement.
Strolling on stage in a white dinner jacket and bow tie, Rock casually introduced himself as host of a show "otherwise known as the white People's Choice awards," adding, "You realise if they nominated hosts, I wouldn't get this job."
From that moment on, it was clear Rock would be pulling no punches. Wondering with mock bemusement why blacks' anger over a lack of Oscar diversity never boiled over in the 1950s or '60s like it did this year, he answered his own question, "Because we had real things to protest at the time."
"We were too busy being raped and lynched then to care about who won best cinematographer," he went on. "When your grandmother's swinging from a tree, it's really hard to care about best documentary foreign short."
Rock did not confine his barbs to Hollywood alone. He drew one of his biggest laughs joking that the Oscars' annual "in-memorium" montage tribute to film stars who have died during the past year would instead be devoted to "black people who were shot by the cops on their way to the movies."
Rock was named as host of the 88th Oscars in October, months before the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its roster of nominees lacking a single person of colour in any of the acting categories for a second straight year. In the ensuing backlash, he was widely seen as a presciently inspired choice for diffusing tensions looming over the awards.