Oscars host Chris Rock kicked off the 88th Academy Awards telecast Sunday by confronting the race debate that has overshadowed the film world's annual awards gala, calling Hollywood "racist."

"Is Hollywood racist? You're damn right Hollywood is racist," the African-American comedian said, but not "burning-cross racist" or "fetch-me-a-lemonade racist."

"Hollywood is 'sorority racist,'" Rock joked. "'We like you, Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'"

"We want opportunities. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities, that's it," he said.

The first prize of the telecast, seen around the world by an audience of millions, went to Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy, who won best original screenplay for the journalism drama Spotlight.

Charles Randolph and Adam McKay won the prize for best adapted screenplay for the financial caper The Big Short.

Among the evening's top nominees are frontier survival epic The Revenant, with 12 nominations, and dystopian road movie Mad Max: Fury Road, with 10.

The Revenant is seen as one of three strong contenders in a race for best picture, along with Spotlight and The Big Short.

Other nominees for best picture include Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies, immigration tale Brooklyn, kidnap drama Room, space rescue comedy The Martian and Mad Max: Fury Road.

The nominees for best actress are Brie Larson (Room), Saoirse Ronan (Brooklyn), Cate Blanchett (Carol), Charlotte Rampling (45 Years) and Jennifer Lawrence (Joy).

Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant), Eddie Redmayne (The Danish Girl), Matt Damon (The Martian), Bryan Cranston (Trumbo) and Michael Fassbender (Steve Jobs) will compete for best actor.

Best supporting actress nominees are Rooney Mara (Carol), Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) and Kate Winslet (Steve Jobs).

The nominees for best supporting actor are Christian Bale (The Big Short), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Mark Ruffalo (Spotlight), Tom Hardy (The Revenant) and Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies).

A public debate about racial bias in Hollywood erupted after few non-Caucasian artists were nominated for the awards, and none at all for acting prizes, for the second year running.

Several prominent African-American filmmakers, including Spike Lee and Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, announced they would boycott the ceremonies in protest, while civil rights leaders led symbolic protests in Los Angeles and other cities and called for viewers to turn their televisions elsewhere.

But many other African-American artists were at the show, including presenters John Legend and Common.

On the red carpet, former Oscars host Whoopi Goldberg pointed out the entrenched nature of Hollywood's diversity problem, saying, "It's not just the Academy, it's the people who finance movies."

"Every couple of years everybody gets all mad about it, but nothing ever happens," she said.

The Oscars are presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. The Academy's approximately 6,200 voting members choose winners in 24 categories.

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