The last time Chris Rock hosted the Oscars, in 2005, his closest brush to controversy came from mocking then-prolific actor Jude Law.
"He’s in everything," Rock said of Law. "He’s gay, he's straight. He's American, he’s British. Next year, he’s playing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in a movie!"
Later in the show, Sean Penn admonished Rock, who seemed to be poking fun at Law as a lightweight compared to the likes of Clint Eastwood and Tom Cruise. Even if Rock intended any heavy social commentary, it didn’t come across that way in a ceremony that Jamie Foxx and Morgan Freeman left with Oscars.
Fast-forward 11 years in which the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences seems to have been moving in reverse, at least in terms of inclusion. Rock takes the stage at the Dolby Theatre Sunday with a built-in controversy: the Academy's failure to nominate any actors of color for the second straight year.
Rock’s opening monologue stands to be the most watched and scrutinized 10 minutes of his career. It's his opportunity to deliver an Oscar-worthy performance, aiming his acidic humor at the Academy's whitewash.
In 2014, long before being tapped for his second Oscars gig, Rock wrote an essay for "The Hollywood Reporter" in which he called part of the supposedly liberal movie industry "kind of racist." The article coincided with the release of "Top Five," a romantic comedy Rock wrote, directed and starred in. The movie was well received by critics, but didn't get any Oscar love.
Some notable figures, among them honorary Oscar winner Spike Lee, past nominee Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, are skipping Sunday’s ceremony. But Rock, who recently dubbed the Oscars "the white BET awards," never publicly wavered.
He recognizes the power in the world stage, after coming up as a comic out of Brooklyn who fought his way onto "Saturday Night Live" before marking a lasting mark on standup. As previously noted, he’s used his smart and irreverent observational comedy to transform into a social critic along the lines of Richard Pryor and George Carlin.
The challenge Rock faces Sunday rests not in going too far but in lacing his take on the Academy’s failures with enough humor to keep the attention of a wide audience – the kind of folks Hollywood too often take for granted.
The nominations whitewash is symptomatic of an Academy whose blind spots extend to trouble seeing that box office success and quality are not necessarily inversely proportional. Sure, Best Picture nominees "The Martian," "The Revenant" and "Mad Max: Fury Road" pulled in big money. But where's "Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens?" Why is "Inside Out" relegated to the animation category? Why didn’t "Straight Outta Compton" notch anything beyond a screenplay nomination? And forget about comedies, which are rarely rewarded by the Academy.
Rock’s other 2005 signature Academy Awards moment came in a segment taped at a Magic Johnson theater, about seven miles and light years away from the Oscars stage. Moviegoers there lauded "Saw" "Alien vs. Predator" and "White Chicks" – but none of the non-stars in Rock’s video saw any of that year’s nominated films, including the winner, "Million Dollar Baby."
Perhaps Rock should pay another visit to ordinary moviegoers, who can help him deliver the punch line in 2016, the year that the Oscars, to many, became a joke.
Jere Hester is Director of News Products and Projects at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is also the author of "Raising a Beatle Baby: How John, Paul, George and Ringo Helped us Come Together as a Family." Follow him on Twitter.