Chris Rock: Comic superhero set for Hollywood showdown at Oscars ceremony

Always reluctant to be pigeonholed as a voice of black America, the host of this year's Oscars now has little choice

Back in 2008, during his Kill the Messenger tour, Chris Rock told a revealing story about the New Jersey town where he owns a multimillion-dollar home. His handful of black neighbours, he said, consisted of “Mary J Blige, one of the greatest singers of all time; Denzel Washington, one of the greatest actors of all time; and Jay-Z, one of the greatest rappers of all time”. But the white guy who lived next door? “A dentist. And he isn’t like the greatest dentist in history either. I had to host the Oscars to get that house – a black dentist in my neighbourhood would have to invent teeth.”

It’s a joke he could easily recycle when he hosts the Oscars this weekend for a second time. It has been pointed out during the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite controversy that, to achieve awards season buzz, black actors tend to have to play extraordinary historical figures: escaped slaves, champion boxers or civil right leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, the role for which Washington earned a Best Actor nomination in 1993. By contrast, Jennifer Lawrence this year received her fourth Oscar nod – for playing a woman who invented a mop.

When the row over the lack of black nominees erupted in January, the academy must have drawn some small comfort from having already hired Rock to host the ceremony. There’s no performer better qualified to navigate the perilous issue of race in front of a worldwide television audience, and few are as practised at making the Hollywood elite laugh even as he makes them squirm. One Oscar producer recently claimed Rock had thrown out his original monologue and written a new one in light of the controversy. Rock himself is staying quiet on the issue until Sunday night.

In recent weeks, African-American artists have stolen several big shows with eye-catching statements that spoke directly to the Black Lives Matter movement. Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy Awards performance began with the rapper shuffling on stage at the front of a prison chain gang. Football non-fans may soon forget that the Denver Broncos won the Super Bowl, but they’ll undoubtedly remember Beyoncé’s blistering half-time show, which led some police unions to call for a boycott of her world tour over its alleged anti-cop, pro-Black Panther motifs.

When there were calls for Rock to boycott the Oscars, his friend Ricky Gervais – the risqué repeat host of the Golden Globes – tweeted: “If I were @chrisrock, I wouldn’t be considering boycotting the Oscars. I’d be thinking: ‘this shit is live. I can do some serious damage.’” Comedian and Rock protégé W Kamau Bell told LA radio station KPCC: “There’s no other place [Chris] would rather be in the middle of this controversy than on stage  hosting the Academy Awards... He’s probably sitting somewhere rubbing his hands together and evilly laughing.”

But writer-producer Ali LeRoi, who has worked with Rock for years, said the comedian might have declined the gig if he’d known what it would entail. “The Oscars is usually the least controversial thing a person can do. He probably thought, ‘I want to get away from having to make a point or deal with race. I just want to hand out some awards!’” For Gervais hosting the Globes, LeRoi added, “There’s no real responsibility. He’s just making fun of people. But now, when Chris goes out there, he’s saddled with being the mouthpiece of the entire black entertainment community.”

Born in South Carolina but raised in Brooklyn, Rock, 51, became accustomed to rooms full of hostile white people at an early age. As a boy, he was bussed from his family’s home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighbourhood to school in predominantly white Bensonhurst, where he suffered bullying so bad that his parents eventually took him out of high school, a period later memorialised in the semi-autobiographical sitcom Everybody Hates Chris, which he co-created with LeRoi. The experience did not dent his confidence, at least not visibly so. By the age of 20 he was already performing stand-up at clubs in New York, where he was spotted by Eddie Murphy, then the biggest comedy star in the world. He gave Rock his first minor film role in the 1987 action comedy sequel Beverly Hills Cop II. 

Today, Rock, too, is a mentor who has helped to bring on younger black comics such as Bell and Saturday Night Live cast member Leslie Jones.

Rock himself was in the SNL line-up from 1990 to 1993, which gave him national prominence, but he first cemented his status as one of America’s stand-up greats in 1996, with his HBO comedy special Bring the Pain. In that set was his now-legendary routine about intra-racial relations, known as “Black People vs Niggas”, which he has since partially disowned, concerned that it encouraged people to think they could comfortably get away with using the N-word.

For the past two decades, Rock has built a reputation as a renaissance man: not simply a stand-up comedian, but an actor, writer and director – and, in the case of the Woody Allen-esque 2014 romantic comedy Top Five, all of the above. He also made an acclaimed documentary, Good Hair (2009), about African-American women’s complex relationship with their hair.

Last year, he published a nuanced essay on race and Hollywood for The Hollywood Reporter and has proved himself an astute and hilarious commentator on other major issues. “Gun control?” goes one of his best-known bits. “We need some bullet control! I think all bullets should cost 5,000 dollars. ’Cause if a bullet cost 5,000 dollars, there’d be no more innocent bystanders.”

Yet unlike Bill Cosby, who for years embraced his role model status, only to see it crumble under serious scrutiny, Rock has always resisted the label. “The black performer has a responsibility to the community that, frankly, white performers don’t have,” he said last year. “You never hear that white people are good role models. Never. The term ‘role model’ is racist, because it implies that my good behaviour is not natural, that I am behaving just to help out my people.”

Before the onset of the #OscarsSoWhite brouhaha, Rock reportedly intended to skewer safer targets in his Oscar monologue: the pay inequality between men and women in Hollywood, the prevalence of superhero movies. When Rock first hosted the Academy Awards in 2005, his most contentious joke was about Jude Law. “Who is this guy?” he wondered, after Law had turned up in a disproportionate number of that year’s releases. That earned him a dressing down from the pious Sean Penn, who pointed out, while presenting an award, that Law was “one of our finest young actors”.

This time around, Rock has bigger fish to fry than Law’s acting prowess. Reluctant he may be, but he may also be the one man equal to the moment. “You really couldn’t find a guy who wants trouble less than Chris,” said LeRoi. “I think of him as being like Superman: off-stage, he’s Clark Kent. He’s a mild-mannered guy who likes art, who reads newspapers, who appreciates a good hot dog. But he just happens to have a superpower, and it would be almost criminal for him not to use it.”

Chris Rock: A life in brief

Born: 7 February 1965, in Andrews, South Carolina.

Family:  Second of five sons of teacher Rosalie, and Julius, a truck driver. Has two daughters.

Education: Bussed to schools in Brooklyn, New York, but dropped out due to racist bullying.

Career: Entered New York’s comedy club circuit, 1984; ‘Saturday Night Live’, 1990-93; HBO Special ‘Bring the Pain’, 1996. Hosted his first Oscars, 2005. Has won three Emmys and one Grammy.

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