Chris Rock is one of the most insightful comedians of his generation.
When he embarks upon a media blitz to promote a new movie, the interviews usually transcend the bafflegab we’ve come to expect from junkets and celebrity Q&As. There’s none of the “this was a challenging project” or “I prepared by doing (blank)” stuff because Rock is cursed: he’s always observing, always squinting at the big picture, always getting lost in deeper thoughts.
Unlike most celebrities, Rock has something to say.
More important, he isn’t afraid to say it.
So it was no surprise to watch him hijack his own publicity tour for Top Five — his new film that hits theatres Dec. 12 — and instead lob some truth bombs at a time when America is again grappling with the thorny issue of racism.
In a lengthy interview with New York magazine, Rock attacked the notion of “black progress” by saying: “So, to say Obama is progress is saying that he’s the first black person that is qualified to be president. That’s not black progress. That’s white progress. There’s been black people qualified to be president for hundreds of years.”
This was the warm-up to his main act.
In an essay for The Hollywood Reporter, which quickly lit a fuse under the Internet, Rock called out Hollywood as a “white industry,” lamented the lack of diversity in executive suites and claimed Los Angeles was a “slave state” for Mexicans who’ve been excluded from the glam machinery and exiled to indentured servitude.
“You’re telling me no Mexicans are qualified to do anything at a studio? Really? Nothing but mop up? What are the odds that that’s true? The odds are, because people are people, that there’s probably a Mexican David Geffen mopping up for somebody’s company right now. The odds are that there’s probably a Mexican who’s that smart who’s never going to be given a shot.”
And this is where he lost me.
Hollywood is a world unto itself. It is mercenary, cutthroat, driven purely by money. If someone can make a dime off someone else, that someone else will be given a shot even if his or her skin colour is orange with neon blue polka dots.
The only colour that matters is green.
When Rock arrived on the scene 30 years ago, as he mentions with no sense of irony, the biggest star was Eddie Murphy. With each passing year, the doors have creaked open a little wider and more minorities walk through to grab parts and jobs and opportunities their parents could have never imagined.
If a movie about Gandhi was made today, producers could easily find a lead Indian actor for the title role and not be forced to brown up someone like Ben Kingsley, as happened when such a film was made in 1982.
Rock is not only the star of Top Five; he wrote the script and sat in the director’s chair. When it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall, it led to a bidding war and broke records when Paramount nabbed the distribution rights for an astonishing $12.5 million.
Not bad for a system built on discrimination.
Rock is richer than the vast majority of white people on the planet. That he acquired this fame and fortune inside a system that is “kind of racist,” to use his words, suggests it’s not the kind of racist we should worry about given recent events.
There were demonstrations across America this week to protest the death of Eric Garner, an unarmed black man whose haunting last words on July 17 were “I can’t breathe.” After calmly telling police he was minding his own business, Garner was cornered and placed in a chokehold by NYPD officer Daniel Pantaleo. The incident was captured on video. It is unambiguous in its horror.
Despite the damning evidence, a grand jury on Wednesday did not indict Pantaleo. This happened a few days after a grand jury did not indict the officer in Ferguson, Mo., who shot and killed Michael Brown, another unarmed black man who had the misfortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time, which is to say, was just trying to live his life.
Hollywood may not be as inclusive as Rock would like. But it is far more inclusive than America itself. The backlots and boardrooms are positively genteel compared to the street where Brown died in a blast of bullets, to the dusty stretch of concrete outside a storefront where Garner took his last breath.
We forget about these small-town corners until something terrible happens. We forget these corners are full of people who have nowhere else to go. This is the opposite of Hollywood, which operates on a voluntary basis.
Nobody is forced to become a star. Celebrity is not a birthright.
But not getting killed by the police should be.
Chris Rock sees himself as a merchant of truth. He’s a brilliant guy, no question. But in comedy, timing is everything. And when held up to recent events, his comments reveal a truth that runs counter to the point he was making: when it comes to America’s race problem, Hollywood is the least of it.