The Tragi-Comic View

Chris Rock is the Ideal Truth-teller for Our Digital Age

At a time when most media content is shaped to appeal to narrow audience demographics, then sliced, diced, spliced and funneled into targeted distribution channels, Chris Rock just did something outrageous:

In promoting his latest project, “Top Five,” an independent motion picture that he wrote and directed, Rock delivered a series of interviews and essays published primarily in legacy media outlets. By achieving placement in a veritable Old Folks Home of news outlets — The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter, New York Magazine — Rock proved the value of establishment media brands amid a widening, noisy scrum of pop-up news, entertainment and political web publications.

This roll out strategy proved (I should say proves again, in case anyone in tech or media is still doubtful) that Content is King. Wait — make that, Rock’s current discussions show that quality Content and ideas are King.

While it is true that Rock is a famous American entertainer, a Brand unto himself, it is far from a lock these days that big stars can effectively ‘sell’ their projects to mass audiences within this fragmented media environment. In the event of most movie promotional spins, actors and directors typically stay ‘on message,’ limiting interviews and comments and social media interactions to descriptions of how the film came together, or to some aspects of the story depicted.

The Medium (Alone) Is Not the Message

But, at least in the early phase of promoting “Top Five,” Rock took a calculated risk: His messaging has been stunningly expansive — not limited to pushing just the one “product,” the new movie, although obviously the timing leads to the new film. Instead, it strikes me that Rock recognized and seized an opportunity to surf the zeitgeist — the roiling unease and heightened cultural agita that has gripped America’s body politic at this moment:

Black and brown citizens, and growing numbers of whites, too, are filling city streets of late to protest police brutality and unfair labor practices; the U.S. President, a black man in his early 50s, is in a political locked-cage grudge match with a predominantly white Congress; our professional sporting organizations and institutions of higher learning are seeing massive cultural and economic upheaval that is testing everything we ever thought we knew about “American exceptionalism.” And the tech industry, the very sector that made this platform I’m using now, is producing amazing new tools that have shifted entire economies — while also fostering and accelerating income inequality and workplace cultures that are brazenly toxic and seemingly intractable.

How fortunate then, that unlike some other public figures who have plunged into these waters lately only to drown in their own stupidity or insensitivity — looking at Charles Barkley, Rudy Guiliani and a handful of D-list actors and actresses — Rock is showing thoughtfulness, pragmatism, and a cautiously optimistic outlook on our tenuous state of affairs.

Also, courage.

Chris Rock is one brave MoFo to have candidly discussed topics such as racism in Hollywood C-suites, the strategic approach he takes to keeping his stand up act sharp, and the hypocrisy that is baked into American culture, among other hot buttons. Much of what has riveted readers from across demographic divides is the starkness of Rock’s observations, his willingness to cheerfully pinpoint many painful aspects of our contemporary world that are “hidden in plain sight” but which usually only are discussed weightily by Usual Suspects on TV political shows or on op-ed pages. Rock is not generally thought of as a “political comedian,” and yet, in the vein of George Carlin, one of several Old School comics Rock name-checks, these interviews show Rock to be an exceptional student of politics indeed.

Redefining Political Comedy

From Rock’s website: The comedian/director tries out new material onstage in New York, 2014

The well-spring of his humor comes from a cold understanding of America’s shaky foundation, which is to say, the social, political and economic structure that grew up and hardened during hundreds of years in which white people stole from blacks and Native people. We all know that “progress” has been achieved. At the same time, what’s refreshing about Rock’s recent commentary is his fearless and accurate ability to identify the vast gray areas of human behavior and our political systems — the collections of organic and built forces — that sow tragedies large and small every day.

More than that, Rock calls out those who pass along “received wisdom” (including Lorne Michaels) as if nothing can be done to correct inequitable systems. Implicitly, he fingers those in the entertainment and media sectors who display a collective Shoulder Shrug attitude, the notion that every thing is jacked up but no one really is to blame because “this is just how it works.” I am of the opinion that most successful comedians are wickedly smart, in intellectual terms. But it takes confident intellect and inherent bravery to indict a system that has made you rich and famous.

We’re accustomed to Rock delivering external cultural critiques from the stage during his concert tours: his infamous “Black people versus Niggaz” riff from his 1996 “Bring the Pain” stand up act, has been widely parsed lately in the wake of the sad, shocking revelations about Bill Cosby’s alleged 40 year-long history of sexual misconduct (some observers noted that while Cosby incurred the wrath of many for exhorting young black men to ‘pull up their pants’ during the notorious “Pound Cake” speech that Cosby gave in 2004, Rock was given a pass for making what amounted to the same point with that “black people versus Niggaz” riff).

The Respectability Politics police, comprised of a core group of black public intellectuals who largely, it must be said, are not generally known as the most humorous table in room, pretty much give Rock a pass for views that are somewhat socially conservative. Rock’s white fans — who have been burning up Twitter all week with favorable reviews of the performer’s comments in these interviews — are likely surprised to hear Rock discuss his children in such tender terms. African-American longtime fans, though, likely view Rock’s descriptions of how he feels about his daughters as no surprise at all, in light of his previous commentary from stages about poorly-behaving black folks. Rock’s Mom, as he shares with us in the New York Magazine interview, grew up in a small town in South Carolina, a place where blacks had to “go to the vet” for medical health care, among other racism-driven indignities.

That anecdote, while perversely funny, also reminded us (or informed some readers for the first time) that while his family’s story may not be defined by racism, it sure as hell has been marked by it. Yet the intersection of race and class matters, too, and Rock astutely notes that while racism in his world has been ameliorated somewhat by the wealth he has achieved, the class divisions that also are a troubling reality in America cannot be overlooked.

Rock’s children, as he mentions in The Hollywood Reporter, are unlikely to experience the same kind of racist episodes that his Mom and her Mom did. Yet in that context, Rock notes that his daughters and other young African-Americans of affluent means will face different sets of challenges — class-based rather than racial in nature:

“But something tells me that the life my privileged daughters are leading right now might not make them the best candidates to run the black division of anything. And the person who runs the black division of a studio should probably have worked with black people at some point in their life.”

I can’t know for certain his exact meaning in those comments, but I interpret this to mean that Rock is aware of the need for compassion and empathy in individuals who assume leadership roles — roles that tend to be occupied by those who come from affluent households — and that wealthy blacks are not immune from falling short in those traits just as rich whites have.

Finally, I was oddly touched by Rock’s conversation with Frank Rich. Notwithstanding the location of their talk, the lounge of a swank five star Manhattan hotel, the pacing and tone of the interview sounds like two flinty Old New York Guys chopping it up. For such a casually powerful interview to have published at this time is heartening, a positive sign, perhaps, that not all editors these days have given up on the most valuable aspects of good journalism — the meet-and-deal, face-to-face, chemistry-dependent aspects of reporting. (Excepting Eugene Robinson, I don’t know of another experienced establishment journalist who would have been able to match wits with Rock or give their subject confidence that he would not be subjected to a hatchet job. But Rich, in case you’re unaware, covered theater for many years before shifting to cultural political op-ed writing at The New York Times; his areas of subject-matter expertise, his New York-ness, made him the ideal interviewer for Rock.)

Really, we haven’t seen an interview with an established movie star ignite the public’s imagination in this manner since the long ago days when Playboy Magazine was “cutting edge” and regularly roped the likes of Frank Sinatra and other mega-stars into lengthy Q&As that exposed their opinions on politics, history, and religion.

Rock clearly appreciates the economic and creative privilege he has earned over the years, but he also makes it abundantly clear that he neither takes his status for granted, or sees himself as uniquely immune from criticism. Among the many gems he shares in the The Hollywood Reporter essay, Rock talks bluntly about how and why he serves an unofficial career counselor for other performers of color in Tinseltown and on the stand up circuit:

“”…How many black men have you met working in Hollywood? They don’t really hire black men. A black man with bass in his voice and maybe a little hint of facial hair? Not going to happen. It is what it is. I’m a guy who’s accepted it all.”

So, there you go.

Yes, racism infuses Hollywood’s machinery, but Rock has managed to navigate a fairly steady and lucrative course for himself there in any event. And that last sentence — “I’m a guy who’s accepted it all” — is an admission that he’s probably had to compromise his own values to some degree at different junctures. It is also a hint that, deliberately or subconsciously, Rock’s mentoring other up and coming performers is a fair trade or at least reasonable means of balancing that line on his moral ledger.