With deft timing and an impactful blend of humor and searing commentary, host Chris Rock took the bull by the horns at the Oscars, attacking the diversity crisis roiling the industry and not letting go all night long.
Rock didn't merely acknowledge the elephant in the room. From his first words to his farewell remarks, he brought it stage front and center, and kept it there.
"I counted at least 15 black people in that montage!" he said of the opening film clips.
He went on to call the Oscars the "White People's Choice Awards," and noted that if they had nominated potential hosts, "I wouldn't have this job. You'd all be watching Neil Patrick Harris right now."
He was referring, of course, to the fact that every acting nominee was white for the second year running, a development that led to the OscarsSoWhite backlash. It also led the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to announce sweeping changes meant to increase diversity in its membership — changes that the academy's president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, made reference to as she called on the industry to join in creating change.
"With opportunity comes responsibility," Boone Isaacs said. "It's not enough to just listen and agree. We must take action."
Rock, in some of his lighter comments, joked about the people who'd urged him to boycott the awards show.
"How come it's only unemployed people that tell you to quit something?" he asked, and also cracked a few barbs at the expense of Jada Pinkett Smith and her husband Will Smith, who opted not to attend the show. Maybe it wasn't fair that Smith hadn't been nominated for best actor for "Concussion," he said, but it also wasn't fair that he earned $20 million for "Wild Wild West."
In some of his edgier remarks, Rock wondered why there hadn't been protests back in the '60s, when surely there were years with no black nominees. "Why? Because we had real things to protest," he said. "We were too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer."
And he quipped that this year's in-memoriam package was "just going to be black people shot by the cops on the way to the movies."
Turning more philosophical, he asked: "Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right Hollywood is racist. But it's not the racist you've grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It's like, 'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'" And he added: "We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities. Not just once. Leo (DiCaprio) gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time."
The diversity issue wasn't limited to Rock's opening monologue. In one of the best of several comic bits sprinkled through the show, actress Angela Bassett offered a "Black History Month Minute" paying tribute to a "black" actor — the very white Jack Black.
In a joke montage, gags were inserted into some of this year's movies. In one, Rock himself was an astronaut left up on Mars, a la Matt Damon in "The Martian." But this time, Jeff Daniels and Kristen Wiig at NASA debated bringing him back and decided not to, since it would cost 2,500 "white dollars."
And Rock did a taped bit outside a movie theater in Compton, California for what he called a "fresh perspective," interviewing black moviegoers who said they'd never even heard of top-nominated films like "Spotlight," "Brooklyn," "Trumbo" or "Bridge of Spies." One man turned earnest, saying there was "so much talent out there of all races."
Though Rock was clearly the evening's chief spokesman on the issue, he wasn't alone in addressing diversity onstage. Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, winning the director prize for the second year running, issued a call to "our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and make sure for once and forever that the color of the skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair."
And actor Kevin Hart paid tribute to "all my actresses and actors of color who didn't get nominated." He said the problem would one day be solved. "Let's not let this negative issue of diversity beat us," he added.
Hollywood diversity was an issue outside the Dolby Theatre as well. Before the telecast, Rev. Al Sharpton addressed a group of several dozen protesters nearby. He told the group he would organize larger protests if diversity complaints are not addressed.
As for Rock, he made clear that he thought one actor in particular had been snubbed: Michael B. Jordan for "Creed," whom he introduced as a "shoulda-been nominee."
And the host made sure, even after the final award was given to "Spotlight" for best picture, to bring the evening back to its designated theme.
"I'd like to invite everybody to the BET awards this summer," he said before ending on a serious note:
"Black lives matter."
_Derrik J. Lang in Los Angeles and Verena Dobnik in New York contributed to this story.