Commentary

Get Ready For The Academy Awards Of Race Relations

Usually, the proverbial “elephant in the room” is the thing that everyone is thinking about but avoids mentioning.

However, where this Sunday’s Oscars telecast on ABC is concerned, this year’s elephant -- race -- will not be ignored or evaded. Instead, expect it to be center stage, at least occasionally -- particularly because the host of this year’s show is Chris Rock.

Whether he relishes being placed in this position or not, he will be expected -- if not obligated -- to wisecrack wickedly on the state of race relations in Hollywood because this subject has overshadowed this year’s Oscars ever since the nominations came out last month.

As soon as he realized he was not among the nominees for Best Actor, Will Smith complained that the Oscars were racist and the game was on. Smith was very disappointed. He evidently expected to be nominated for his role as a doctor in the movie called “Concussion” about football head injuries. However, the movie didn’t catch on and it died at the box office -- which is one reason why some movies subsequently get ignored at Oscars time.

Smith’s wife, Jada Pinkett, complained about the lack of African-American nominees too. She then vowed that she wouldn’t attend the Oscars and called for a boycott. Despite the wide publicity she received for her boycott request, you can expect the Oscars on ABC to draw somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 million total viewers, as it usually does.

But Chris Rock will undoubtedly gaze upon the audience inside the Dolby Theatre and joke about the many white faces staring up at him. Or maybe he’ll single out an African-American star or two sitting among them who ignored Jada Pinkett’s call for a boycott -- as Rock himself did, since he obviously didn’t feel it was necessary to withdraw as Oscars host over the race issue.

Of course, the whole thing plays to us ordinary folk as -- what’s the right word or phrase here? Ridiculous? Overblown? Out-of-sync? I have no idea if I speak for many others when I propose here that Will Smith, a rich and successful entertainer whose lifestyle is the envy of millions, does not seem to me like a man whose opportunities were blocked by a racist power structure in Hollywood. The same goes for his wife. 

Again, speaking as an outsider: If anything, it seems that in Hollywood, non-whites with a great deal of talent are often rewarded handsomely.

And yet, The New York Times had a roundup of interviews that appeared online Wednesday morning with the headline “What’s It Really Like to Work in Hollywood? (If You’re Not a Straight White Man).”

The interview subjects included actors and actresses such as Wendell Pierce (ubiquitous character actor who is African-American), Queen Latifah (African-American, plus-sized woman and an Oscar winner), Ken Jeong (Asian-American ABC sitcom star), Mindy Kaling (Indian-American sitcom star and best-selling author) and even Julia Roberts (white woman).

Well, they all had anecdotes about things that agents, directors, casting directors, producers and others had said to them at some point in their pasts -- comments or observations that were insensitive or just plain idiotic. When I read these, my reaction was: Big deal. Maybe someone should inform these Hollywood types that you don’t have to be an actor at an audition to experience this. No matter who we are or what color skin we wear, we all have job-interview stories like this.

And let’s face it, there’s a real disconnect here between the real world the majority of us live in and the Hollywood bubble they live in when you have Julia Roberts complaining that she was a sexism victim on the set of “Erin Brockovich,” for which she won an Oscar. Really, Julia?

Racism is, of course, a critical issue. In the last two or three years, our national conversation about racism has flared up anew in the wake of a series of fatal police shootings of black men. In the context of these events, the discussion about racism -- particularly as it pertains to police and their careless (to say the least) application of deadly force in situations where it didn’t seem at all necessary -- is highly appropriate.

Complaints that the Oscar nominations are too white, however, don’t really rise to the racism standard set by these real-world events and others like them. Maybe Chris Rock, who is nothing if not unpredictable, will find a way to make this point too when he raises the race issue on Sunday night.

“The 88th Oscars” airs Sunday night (Feb. 28) starting at 8:30 Eastern on ABC.

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