(190795)

Controversy is a funny thing. It alternatively (and sometime simultaneously) attracts and repels us. Back in 2005, Chris Rock was selected to be the first African American host of the 77th Academy Awards ceremony in an effort to give the show an “edge” by appealing to a youthful audience. However, well before the broadcast, Rock managed to “rock the boat” by voicing the opinion that only homosexuals regularly watched the Oscars, an utterance that caused conservative academy members to quietly push for his termination. He, in turn, dismissed attendees like Colin Farrell, Jude Law and Tobey Maquire by suggesting they were stand-ins for “real” stars like Tom Cruise and Clint Eastwood. In spite of his provocative discourse, Rock’s presence did not boost the ratings, and everyone assumed he would not be invited back.

Moving ahead 10 years, the Hollywood faithful did just that, in the hope that his provocative wit might convince onlookers that tinsel town is in step with the times. The weeks preceding the 88th ceremony crackled with anticipation as activists and media peddlers sounded off about the implications of #OscarsSoWhite.

In truth, Rock’s presentation this year was (for him) pretty diplomatic, with individual attempts at humor perhaps that were ill conceived and offensive (i.e., the introduction of three children as accountants from Price Waterhouse, rifting on the stereotype of Asians as excellent mathematicians; and the “girl-on-girl” porn reference to the lesbian-themed drama “Carol”). But then edgy humor carries with it the prospect of jokes gone awry, and Rock delivered what he was hired to be: dangerous and funny.

Revisiting the past can sometimes revitalize the present. In his initial stint as emcee, Rock integrated taped footage of interviews with patrons of the then titled Magic Johnson Theatres in which they were surveyed on their familiarity with the year’s awards nominees. This year, he ventured into what he said was Compton, arguably L.A. County’s best known Black enclave, to quiz passers by about the year’s movie selections to confirm videographic proof that Hollywood remained out of touch with contemporary audiences. (Later reports stated that he’d merely retreated to the site of his original video presentation, now called the Regal Cinemas Baldwin Hills, another neighborhood of color without the cultural panache of the “Hub City.” Oh well, in the end remember that it’s just entertainment.)

In contrast to the (comparatively) short-term media fixation on these problems, academic on-lookers have made extended studies of the Hollywood ethnic dynamic, especially UCLA’s Darnell Hunt. His annual report on the subject came out just days prior to the Oscars, and his title pretty much sums up the current state of affairs: “Busine$$ as Usual.”

(Seehttp://www.bunchecenter.ucla.edu/index. php/2016/02/new-2016-hollywood-diversity-report-business-as-usual/.)

In this, the third inception of the report, scholars found that minorities and women lagged behind in nearly every quantitative category. Underrepresentation is the norm in front of and behind the camera, well before the finished product is presented for any awards presentation.

Evidence that productions and programming featuring diverse ethnicities make for higher profit margins not-with-standing, there remains a disconnect between the tangible proof and the motivation to act upon it, as this excerpt shows:

“The false notion that there is a necessary tradeoff between diversity and excellence, the report concluded, has enabled this industry business as usual.”

-from page 58 of the “Hollywood Diversity Report.”

A similar study headed up by Stacy L. Smith at the USC, titled “Inclusion or Invisibility? Comprehensive Annenberg Report on Diversity (CARD) was released on Feb. 22, and came to similar conclusions.

(See http://annenberg.usc.edu/pages/~/media /MDSCI/CARDReport%20FINAL%2022216.ashx)

Hollywood takes a deliberate, measured approach to hot button topics, as Hunt points to the 1977 ABC miniseries, Roots.” To depict the horrors of slavery, producer David L. Wolper mounted an audience friendly production cast with “safe” performers like Scatman Crothers, Raymond St. Jacques, and O.J. Simpson.

For Hunt, the practices that were utilized decades ago continue to shape productions mounted in the new millennium.

“Things have come full circle,” he says. “They wanna figure out how to smooth things over, or appease critics of the industry without changing (their) business (practices) as usual.”

Hunt wonders why, with all the proof that contemporary audiences are clamoring for diverse representation, that the gatekeepers are not moving ahead with more inclusive projects that will generate additional revenue to their profit margins.

A few blocks away from the Oscar ceremony which was held at the intersection of Hollywood and Highland in the Dolby Theatre, the Rev. Al Sharpton held a demonstration in front of Hollywood High School on Los Angeles’ iconic Sunset Boulevard. Earlier in the week, Black Entertainment Television (BET) collaborated with the American Black Film Festival to present an awards evening of self-celebration.

That these separate, interconnected events transpired indicate that real change may be on the horizon, a positive step beyond the performance of a gifted socially-conscious comedian.