I’ve been a die-hard fan of Chris Rock for twenty-five years, since I first saw him in the film New Jack City. What drew me to him, as an actor, was his pure fearlessness. He has never been afraid to make his audience feel uncomfortable. In a pivotal scene in New Jack City he has to show how intense his drug addiction is. I can’t even watch it today. I remember in the theater, we all laughed, hesitantly. His approach to the scene was uncomfortably comical. Uncomfortable because in 1991, so many of us young people in the theater knew firsthand what crack cocaine had done to our communities.
In his stand-up, he’s always been just as pointed and brutally honest. Even when he’s saying it with his trademark half grin.
I grew up watching comedians like Richard Pryor and Paul Mooney with my dad. They approached the issues affecting Black people with a blistering honesty. They were able to somehow take white folk to task in their material while giving them tacit permission to laugh at our pain.
“White people are very good at acting like they're not racist,” Mooney once said, “They deserve an Academy Award for that.”
Last night, as Chris Rock took the stage to host the Oscars, I realized I was subconsciously holding in my breath. I was waiting for him to drop some Mooney-size bombs about race. There was so much discussion revolving around the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Every one knew he would take it on. But how?
So he takes the stage and, within minutes, he has me gasping and clapping my hand over my mouth.
"When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree," he said. "It’s really hard to care who won Best Documentary Foreign Short…"
When I saw a room full of (mostly) white people laughing at a lynching joke, I was monumentally uncomfortable.
And I wasn’t laughing.
As a former Black History teacher, maybe I’m overly sensitive about our past. In college, when I saw photos of burning Black bodies and white folks smiling with pride, it became a part of the fabric of who I am. I can never get those images out of my head. And neither can my father, who is 82 years old and saw racism firsthand growing up in the Deep South.
Then I remembered, this is what Rock does best. He makes us confront our past head on in a way that is direct and purposeful.
But did he land some zingers that would make anyone wonder if they should be laughing? He did it all night long.
By the end of the night, I realized what Rock was doing. He was dog whistling. Dog whistling is a form of communication where someone speaks to a general audience but uses coded terminology to speak to one segment of the population.
When Barack Obama was on the campaign trail in 2008, he spoke to a group of Black voters about being bamboozled and hoodwinked. If you didn’t know the history of the terminology, the hidden message would have sailed over your head.
Obama was actually channeling Malcolm X, who had used that phrasing in his speeches. Obama was talking directly to Black folks, and he was using Malcolm X’s words to signal his political leanings on the low.
(My favorite example of dog whistling was LL Cool J’s nod to Black-owned clothing line FUBU while pushing GAP in a commercial. I still can’t believe he got away with that.)
From his skits featuring Stacy Dash, Suge Knight and Angela Bassett and even the cringe-worthy skit outside of a Compton movie theater, Rock spoke directly to us and said, "I didn’t boycott. Not because I don’t care. But because I can make a difference up here." I have to admit, as the awards moved into the last third, I was weary of the topic. Each joke and skit started to lose its punch because it was overdone. I appreciated the more lighthearted sketches, like his push to sell Girl Scout cookies for his daughter’s troop (similar to Ellen DeGeneres’s selfie moment at the 2014 Oscars).
As the night drew to a close, I still wasn’t sure how I’d rate Rock’s performance. And then I realized what he was up against. Outside of Whoopi Goldberg, what Black celebrity could have done even half as well as Rock? With so much pregame chatter and serious pressure from the Black community and the entertainment world as a whole, last night was nothing but a win for him.
His crowning moment, solidifying his place as one of my favorites, was at the very end. In one layered final sentence, he landed a joke (inviting all to the 2016 BET Awards), thanked his fellow actors and then? His last words? As he exited the stage to the sounds of Public Enemy’s "Fight the Power," he parted with “Black Lives Matter. Thank you.”
Chris Rock, thank you.
(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)