There was never any doubt that, thanks to #OscarsSoWhite rage and host Chris Rock's intelligent and fearless outlook on race in Hollywood, this year's Academy Awards would be (at least at the beginning) a show about race first, and movies second. Honestly? That was pretty welcome, as approaches go.
Many years, the Oscars have leaned heavily on the theme of "movies are important!" that can become a bit of a hard sell for justifying the big fancy party they're throwing. Movies are important, don't get me wrong, but sometimes movies are just movies, and sometimes a big fancy party is a big fancy party — except when it's a big fancy party that also lets Chris Rock throw some shade at an industry which is (sometimes) pretty aware of how badly it can screw things up.
Thus, an opening monologue full of commentary on the state of race in Hollywood, followed by at least two other comedy bits that put the issue front and center. And it led to a ceremony that felt like it had some degree of real weight to it — not so much because this was a necessary approach, as it is the idea that of all the ways that the Oscars might spend its and our time, there are far, far worse options. Remember the year that Val Kilmer rode in on a horse to talk about the great tradition of Westerns? That was a thing that happened in 1999. I'll take the Black History Month Minute over that, any day.
Sometimes, an awards show host will make a big play at the beginning of the night before drifting into the background; Rock remained relatively present the whole evening, and there were moments spared for levity on a regular basis, which is always welcome when your heart is breaking over sexual assault survivors and honor killings.
Inserting black actors into some of this year's nominees wasn't a flawless bit of comedy (Tracy Morgan's take on "The Danish Girl" bore more than a whiff of transphobia) but all I want to watch until the end of time is Leslie Jones mauling Leonardo DiCaprio, or Kristen Wiig and Jeff Daniels recreating their characters from "The Martian" with some incredible deadpan wit. (That said, the line of the night might be Jacob Tremblay's off-the-cuff compliment to Rock: "I loved you in 'Madagascar.'" Officially endorsing the idea of Tremblay as host for 2017.)
Also, it was delightful to see Rock revisit one of his greatest bits from when he hosted in 2005 — a man-on-the-street interview segment conducted at a movie theater straight outta Compton, in which he talked to black moviegoers about the current crop of Oscar movies. (We missed the presence of Albert Brooks, but it was still more than solid.)
Seriously, where did the time go? You can't say that tonight's ceremony flew by, but I'm hard-pressed to identify any real examples of filler. Sure, bits like Chris Rock helping his daughters sell Girl Scout cookies to the audience might not have felt essential, but they brought some energy to the room. (That said — how did they arrive at a total amount ending in a three? Girl Scout cookies cost five bucks a box. Learn to math, Mr. Rock.)
Structurally, the concept of going through the categories in the order that they enter the production process (i.e., starting with writing, then moving into technical categories) wasn't a bad one, if a little overthought. The major problem was looking at the clock and realizing that after forty minutes, exactly four awards had been handed out — and then about five more got tossed out in the space of what felt like five minutes. Pacing in general felt a bit dull, enlivened primarily by the occasional freak upset (Mark Rylance, you seem very nice, but congratulations on taking the award that Sylvester Stallone should have won).
Only three of the five nominated songs got performed, which was probably for the best given how weak the category was this year, but points for at least two of those three performances grabbing at the chance to be real showstoppers (in a good way). Between the Weeknd's S&M-themed cabaret and Lady Gaga's incredibly emotional gut punch of a ballad devoted to combating sexual assault, those were evening highlights. It's hard to celebrate the entire scope of a film in an awards ceremony format, but it is not hard to discover the impact of a song
Because that's what this is all about, isn't it? Celebrating art, celebrating the act of creation. My favorite speech of the night might have been from the producers of "Inside Out," telling the young and alienated that making things would help them in their darker times; it was the sort of speech that stands out, because we can question how much an actor really loves their agent or really believes in that cause — but a moment like that, we know just how true it is.
Overall, the show lacked a big iconic moment that truly caught us off guard, like Ellen Degeneres ordering pizza for the crowd or gathering together the most star-studded selfie of all time. But it lacked any major gaffs, beyond running a little longer than necessary, and featured some fun surprises. Did Rock and his writers put up a complex analysis of the societal issues underlying Hollywood's ongoing issues with creating real inclusion? No. But was it supposed to? The answer to that is also no.
It would have been nice to see the show acknowledge diversity beyond the realm of white versus black. But with that oversight acknowledged, this was still a more relevant and intelligent evening than we might have anticipated. It wouldn't have happened, had the nominees reflected some real color. But as long as it went, we still enjoyed watching.