Reading The Pictures is dedicated to the analysis of news photos and media images.
February 29, 2016

Race Optics and the 2016 Academy Awards

Chris Rock Compton movie theater interviews. 2016 Academy Awards.

It being Hollywood after all, last night’s Academy Awards show managed to present the most entertaining kind of civics lesson. Studying the images in isolation, though, the evening wasn’t nearly as slick as it seemed. I offer you some highlights and also some lesser lights.

The screenshot about was certainly the political image of the night. More than any guilting or shaming of the Academy Award audience, Rock’s video interviewing moviegoers in Compton was stunning.  (Meryl who? Carol who? Spotlight what?) In the screenshot, we see Rock, in his expression (and his tuxedo) straddling the astonishing and bluntly demonstrated gap between two Americas. And, gripping a real Oscar, what a wonderful mixture of joy, sheepishness and audacity this woman offered the academy and the viewing audience.

Brie Larson Buzzed screengrab 2016 Academy Awards

Sure, BuzzFeed had the visual “buzz idea” of the night. In their post, they purport to show Hollywood’s finest reacting awkwardly to the Chris Rock opening race lecture/monologue. (Transcript.)

Yes, how fascinating seeing the best actors in the world, knowing they were on camera, suddenly doing CYA improv. The problem is, Rock’s brilliant sketch was a partly-polemic, partly hilarious weave of blaming and empathizing —  a Creed-quality combination of lulling, baiting and biting. Without knowing exactly what Rock was saying when, though, we have no way of knowing what these actors — admittedly, fish in a barrel — were reacting to the exact moment.

Leo Dicaprio 2016 Academy Awards Buzzed screenshot

If they had confined themselves to screenshots like this (also from the article), they would have been on the money, so to speak. Because the Trump style of “gotcha” is the standard this year, however, it seemed as fashionable to take a blunt instrument to the (Hollywood) establishment.

Comedian Chris Rock hosts the 88th Academy Awards. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

I found this Reuters photo from its Oscars slideshow terribly awkward. Chris Rock is brilliant at using humor, including his voice, face and body language, to evoke and play on racial attitudes and stereotypes. But not out-of-context like this. Bug-eyed and hunched like that, the photo echoing a Minstrel-y vibe, Rock himself is being caricatured. Perhaps the media, as an extension of the white establishment, can only take so much?

On the other hand, the L.A. Times photo of survivors of sexual abuse, and then the Reuters shot, capturing Lady Gaga standing in solidarity with them, are thoroughly respectful.

Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times Lady Gaga and abuse survivors at 2016 Academy Awards.

Lady Gaga sings her Oscar-nominated song "Til It Happens to You." 2016 Academy Awards. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

I liked both of these images (the former from the LAT Oscar photo gallery) for the way they prioritize the survivors. What made the moment that powerful, though, just like in Rock’s Compton video, was the presence of actual citizens — here, the embodiment of social injustice — amidst the monied stars. The challenge here for the show producers was to avoid the sense they were substituting one political issue for another. And that, they did.

Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. Chris Rock and Girl Scouts at 2016 Academy Awards.

Here’s the racial element that really threw me, though — and I’m surprised but not surprised there has been so little mention of it. I found it incredibly awkward that Rock, using his daughters as a foil, brought out an all-black girl scout troop to solicit sales from the mostly white multi-million/billionaires. If there had been a mix of black and white girls, it would have been different, but that wasn’t the case.

Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times. Chris Rock and Girl Scouts at 2016 Academy Awards.

In juicing the assembled elite for cash, Rock confined his quips to how filthy rich they all are. In the larger picture, it didn’t do Rock any credit silently playing on white guilt when the rest of the night he openly drilled the industry on racial disparity. Instead, raising an eye-popping $65k in a matter of minutes, it looked like a shake down. (Remarkably, even this breezy NYT blog post used the phrase.)

And then, there was our reaction to this Getty promo photo two days before the event (which seemed to pan out right):

(photo 1: screenshot via marksluckie/Instagram. photo 2 & 3: ABC via Buzzfeed.  photo 4: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters caption: Comedian Chris Rock hosts the 88th Academy Awards. photo 5: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times caption: Lady Gaga and abuse survivors. photo 6: Mario Anzuoni/Reuters caption: Lady Gaga sings her Oscar-nominated song “Til It Happens to You.” photo 7 & 8: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times caption: Girl Scouts sell cookies with Chris Rock.)

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