Chris Rock said everything that needed to be said. Almost.
The burgeoning controversy over the blindingly white field of Oscar nominees made the recent 88th Academy Awards a potential minefield. Rock, fearless, funny and, fortuitously, African American, was exactly the right host at precisely the right time.
He contextualized the controversy, pointing out that this is hardly the first time the Academy Awards has overlooked African-American performers. He called Hollywood out for racial exclusion and denial of opportunity. He even managed a shout out to Black Lives Matter.
But again, if Rock said much of what needed to be said, he didn’t quite say it all. He didn’t say why this matters.
It is easy, after all, to dismiss the whole controversy as the self-pitying moan of ridiculously rich, appallingly attractive, fantastically fortunate people whose cries of racial unfairness would be laughable to a beleaguered black man or woman struggling to find a job, pay the rent or keep a child from being shot. Rock seemed to suggest as much, noting that previous all-white Oscars went by without complaint because, “We had real things to protest at the time ... .”
“When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree,” he said, “it’s really hard to care about Best Documentary Foreign Short.”
Which is true enough. Still, there is an insidious real world effect to Hollywood’s habit of racial exclusion. And if African-American actors know this well, others are in a position to know it even better.
To put that another way: Will Smith was snubbed for an Oscar this year. Don’t you think Aasif Mandvi would love to have that problem?
You’ve probably never heard of him, and that’s kind of the point. Mandvi is a Muslim actor from India who is likely best known as a correspondent on the “The Daily Show” with Jon Stewart. He works regularly, but he is unlikely to be the leading man of any big-budget Oscar-bait movie any time soon. And yes, maybe that’s because he’s not good enough. Or never had the right break. Or maybe it’s because America is simply not ready for a dark-skinned Muslim from India as a romantic lead or action hero.
None of this is to invalidate the complaint that black actors find it hard to get their due at awards time. It is only to say the issue is larger than that. Hollywood is the world’s dream factory. It is the most powerful shaper of perception in all of human history.
So what does it mean when Hollywood doesn’t see you?
What does it mean for the Mexican-American mother in East L.A. working 80-hour weeks with dreams of sending her kids to college? What does it mean for the Muslim man in Detroit taking his oath to become a Marine? What does it mean for the Syrian refugee, the gay teacher, the African-American boy walking home under a hoodie?
If Hollywood does not see you — and reflect you — are you really there?
Or is not the very reality of you, individual you, shredded to nothingness by a culture that routinely “otherizes” vulnerable people? As in a certain would-be president who paints Mexicans as rapists and acts as if “Muslim” were the very brand name of evil.
It was once said in a Hollywood movie (and before that, a Marvel comic book) that “with great power comes great responsibility.” Let us hope, then, that the tumultuous Oscars of 2016 turns out to be the moment Hollywood finally chooses to accept the responsibility that comes with its power, finally commits to telling more stories that reflect America and Americans in the fullness of their diversity _ and humanity.
Because in the end, this is not simply about whether people of color are validated. In a very real sense, it’s about whether or not they even exist.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist
for the Miami Herald