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Hollywood claims to have listened. So will 2016 be the last ‘white’ Academy Awards?

Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith, Idris Elba, Chris RockChris Rock, right, will host the Oscars, but while Idris Elba, centre, is going, although not nominated, Jada Pinkett-Smith and Will Smith have decided to stay at home. Composite: REX/PA/ABC

Few comedians – and none as adept at exposing prejudices – have been given a stage as politically primed as the one Chris Rock will command as host of Sunday’s Academy Awards.

Hollywood, a company town that loves the sound of political correctness if not the reality of equality, has for six weeks been turned upside down by accusations of institutional racism after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences failed to nominate a single minority actor for the second year in a row.

Even if this is – as some have argued – an accident of bad timing, the tradition-bound institution has sleep-walked into the diversity issue in the midst of a neurotic, election-year referendum on the nation’s first black president.

Idris Elba in Beasts Of No NationThe Academy has reacted. Since the #OscarsSoWhite dispute over diversity and racial representation broke out in January, it has taken steps to even out representation at the body. New rules, announced at the end of January, include a commitment to double the number of women and ethnic minority members of the Academy by 2020.

But will this be enough to reform the Oscars and could tonight’s ceremony be the last “white” version of the famous awards ceremony? The problems may be more deep-rooted than that, in an entire industry where decision-makers are overwhelmingly male and white.

Rock, who first hosted the Oscars a decade ago and who called Hollywood “a white industry” in a 2014 essay, has been practising his lines in a local comedy club. Pay inequality, the glut of superhero films, the Kardashians – the business is hardly short on comedic material. But nothing comes close to race – and no one is talking about anything else.

Entertainment trade magazine Variety reported that Rock’s routine included a joke about the celebrity couple boycotting the awards – Will Smith, denied a nomination for Concussion, and wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who have cited systemic racism in the industry as their reason for their non-attendance. Sadly, that joke may never be heard; its punchline is considered “too lewd” to get past the Oscar censors.

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