Commentary: Was Billy Crystal Over the Line at the Oscars?

Billy Crystal left some people up in arms after his Oscar-hosting gig Sunday night. But is the hatred deserved?

If you’re a living, breathing American, you probably know that the Academy Awards was held Sunday night. And if you watched the Oscars, you’re probably aware that Billy Crystal, the awards show’s host, is taking shots from civil rights activists today.


More than once Sunday night, some viewers were a bit perturbed by Crystal’s perceived slights against African-Americans. The first came in the opening montage, when Crystal donned Blackface to portray Sammy Davis Jr. The second came during a portion of the show when Crystal talked about award-winning film The Help. After actress Octavia Spencer won the Oscar for best supporting actress, Crystal quipped, “After I saw The Help I just wanted to hug the first Black woman I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.”


The jokes caused a firestorm on Twitter and the rest of the Internet. But were they really all that offensive?


Though Crystal used to do his Sammy Davis Jr. impression, complete with Blackface, fairly regularly on Saturday Night Live decades ago, the times they have a-changed. It’s now far less acceptable to do that kind of minstrelsy than it once was, regardless of the fact that Crystal knew Davis before Davis died. Even if Crystal had no ill intentions in his heart, he should have at least known Blackface was bound to offend some people and proceeded with caution, especially considering the Davis gag was hardly an important element of his overall show.


The anger at Crystal’s Beverly Hills joke, on the other hand, seems much ado about nothing. Let’s consider it again: ““After I saw The Help I just wanted to hug the first Black woman I saw, which from Beverly Hills is about a 45-minute drive.” Nowhere in the joke does Crystal make any disparaging comments about African-Americans. You might not think the joke is funny, but at its heart it’s poking fun at the segregation in Los Angeles and the rich-poor divide, not Black people. And the fact remains that there are not very many Black people in Beverly Hills.


At their best, comedians should point out real social problems through humor. Sometimes, reality hurts. But sometimes, as the saying goes, you have to laugh to keep from crying.


The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.


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(Photo: Kevin Winter/Getty Images)

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