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CHIP BENSON | Commentary Between a Rock and an Oscar: A patsy?



Published: Wed, February 23, 2005 @ 12:00 a.m.



The producers of this year's Academy Awards have cynically tried to make up for the buzz lost to the nominating snubs of "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ" -- the two most-talked-about movies of 2004 -- by instead choosing an edgy and profane comedian, Chris Rock, as host of Sunday night's ceremony.

Rock has done his part by creating a stir when he remarked that "only gays watch the Oscars," and that the black actor Jamie Foxx "had better win" the awards for best actor (in "Ray") and best supporting actor (in "Collateral").

'Bigger and Blacker'

After an initial start on "Saturday Night Live," the comedian became a superstar, primarily through his HBO solo-comedy performances "Never Scared" and "Bigger and Blacker," performed before mostly black audiences in black theaters. However, all along, perhaps the audience that really mattered (television and its dollars) was white.

In these performances, Rock is quite profane and bigoted. The talented comedian can say many degrading things about black culture that white comics cannot. But like the Spike Lee movie "Bamboozled," he may eventually provoke so much outrage that he will set back the development of other African-American TV and movie performers for many years.

Merely a diversion?

This may be the moment. For all of his success, Rock has come of age on small stages and niche television channels, late at night. He is still not a mainstream performer, and there is considerable trepidation in Hollywood over exactly what he will say at the Academy Awards. Yet he will soon be a U.S. ambassador to the world; the Oscars ceremony is the most watched television program, with a global audience of 1.5 billion.

At the very least, if he makes a fool of himself he will kill two birds with one cynical producers' stone, by creating buzz and then absorbing the criticism. Perhaps this is preferable in Hollywood to the heat that would have come down had Michael Moore or Mel Gibson been the center of attention.

Is Rock, then, merely a patsy -- a diversion from the storms of criticism created by "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "The Passion of the Christ?"

It's been enough already, and quite a tumultuous year or two for politics and Mideastern religion.

Waiting in the wings and perhaps soon to make their first appearance at the Oscars are rappers Snoop Dogg and P. Diddy -- who are also attempting the lucrative change into mainstream entertainers. Snoop Dogg is an animated voice in the children's movie "Racing Stripes," and P. Diddy is featured in a new ad for Diet Pepsi.

Stay tuned for the show.

XChip Benson is a television documentary producer, who writes for Providence Journal.




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