NYT Silly Oscar Racism Talk: Movie Critics Revel in 'Watching a White Academy Squirm'

New York Times movie critics Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott, and Wesley Morris blessed readers with an even sillier than usual Oscar racism recap in Tuesday's paper: “Watching a White Academy Squirm.”

Dargis and Scott, showing their usual humorlessness, successfully ruined another celebration of film, as they reliably do for every summer blockbuster season as well, panning movies for racism and sexism committed either in front of or behind the camera. Dargis in particular outdid herself by comparing Academy Awards host Chris Rock's skit playing "The Martian": "...yet there was power in that “Martian” bit, with its image of a black man pleading for his life, an appeal that falls on deaf white ears: it felt larger than the Oscars..."

This time the focus was on white racism in Hollywood, and how comedian Chris Rock navigated the touchy subject while hosting the Academy Awards Sunday night.

The story so far: In January, when the nominations for the 88th Academy Awards were announced and not a single nonwhite performer was recognized, a lot of people voiced their outrage about the omissions. The oversights weren’t new for this predominantly white organization, but the intensity and volume of the criticisms were.

Dargis reveled in how Rock frightened “all those increasingly uneasy white people” in the audience:

Our national nightmare is over: The 2016 Academy Awards are history. They were also history, too, just because for a few minutes Chris Rock tore the smiling mask off of the industry. Unlike most Oscar hosts, who just have to ease us through another grindingly dull show, he had a tough job Sunday night because everyone knew he had to confront #OscarsSoWhite, which he initially did pretty brilliantly.

Because while at first it seemed as if Mr. Rock was going to go easy on the room, with soft laughs about the “White People’s Choice Awards,” you could feel the room begin to cool when he started dropping words like “raping” and “lynching.” Rarely have the cutaways to the audience seemed as surreal. It was as if a chasm had suddenly opened between this single black performer and all those increasingly uneasy white people. The industry likes to obscure its racism and sexism, but its inequities and hollow insistence that the only color it cares about is green have become untenable as more people speak out. So, I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed watching that room squirm.

Scott, who is reliably liberal himself (he called Michael Moore “a credit to the Republic”) highlighted the temptation of liberal piety:

Well, sure, but it also felt as if half the room was enjoying watching the other half squirm. Or maybe everyone in the room was enjoying the thought that everyone else was squirming. Or maybe each white person was enjoying his or her own inner squirm.

We are always eager for affirmations of our own “wokeness.” Which is just to say that Mr. Rock was alert to the contradictory nature of the task at hand. His job was to speak some uncomfortable truths about Hollywood and also, by doing so, to let Hollywood off the hook. He had to be both insider and outsider, scourge and jester, everyone’s best black friend and the person at the party who points out that having a black friend isn’t good enough. He succeeded in all of this by being Chris Rock.

When Wesley Morris brought up a skit about “The Martian,” with Rock playing the Matt Damon role of trapped astronaut, Dargis lunged for the inappropriate metaphors she excels at (Two words: “symbolic phallus”).

All true, yet there was power in that “Martian” bit, with its image of a black man pleading for his life, an appeal that falls on deaf white ears: it felt larger than the Oscars, even if the show has a way of, you know, going on. It was both withering and hopeless, as was Mr. Rock’s entire, impossible gig, which forced him to straddle the very contradictions that make the industry so difficult to grapple with and so seemingly impervious to change. To a degree, he was put in the same position faced by anyone who wants to join an exclusive “sorority,” to borrow one of his metaphors for this white power elite: Do you effect change from the inside (say, by taking their money and mocking them), or do you effect change from the outside?

Morris got in a late dig at black conservative actress Stacey Dash, before finding “white men abusing their power” in all the Best Picture nominees:

But there was critique built into the production of the show -- and not just permitting the anti-Black History Month scold Stacey Dash to come out and embarrass herself....Then there were the best picture nominees themselves. In their own ways, most of them were about white men abusing their power, in “Spotlight” and “The Big Short,” obviously, but also in “Room” and “Mad Max.” Then there’s “The Revenant,” a movie that isn’t smart enough to be the critique of the white man’s uncomfortable place in the American West that it thinks it is. Hollywood knows it’s got a white-male-ness problem. And the academy, having let Mr. Rock M.C. a roast, can point out awareness of that problem by giving those movies prizes. It’s the feedback loop that keeps giving.

Another years at the movies ruined. Two thumbs up!

Clay Waters
Clay Waters
Clay Waters was director of Times Watch, a former project of the Media Research Center.