Last night saw an Oscars ceremony that will go down in history as one of the most contentious and chaotic in the awards’ near 90-year history — and not just because of that insane Best Picture flub. The 89th Academy Awards, which aim to celebrate the art of cinematic storytelling, took place last night amidst ongoing political chaos. From its commercials to Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, the show attempted to address a divided nation — and, as battles over human rights for people of color, immigrants, and women dominate political conversations, the ceremony itself reflected those struggles with varying degrees of success.
Anyone who followed the high-profile awards last year remembers the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, which called out the 88th awards’ lack of racial diversity among nominees. The Academy received some long-overdue flak when there were no people of color nominated in any of the four acting categories, and each Best Picture nominee focused on white protagonists. Last year, fans and critics alike were happy to see the AMPAS make greater strides toward diversity when they made rule changes to broaden their membership, and then welcomed a fresh slew of Academy members that included more women and people of color. These efforts cannot be separated from Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who has outspokenly advocated for diversity in her organization and is a black woman herself. Despite these important steps forward, however, the Oscars exemplify the molasses-like speed of progress, especially when it comes to the awards themselves.
I want to begin this article by acknowledging the wins last night that made representational history. The ceremony saw more than three black winners for the first time in its extensive history. The incomparable Viola Davis took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, making her the first black actor to win an Oscar, Emmy, and a Tony for acting. Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to ever win an Academy Award when he scored a much-deserved Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Moonlight producer Dede Gardner is now the first woman to win multiple Best Picture awards. Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi now has an historic two Best Foreign Feature wins under his belt — and made the awesome decision not to attend the ceremony in protest of Trump’s anti-Muslim ban. Moonlight is the first LGBT-themed film to ever win Best Picture.
And yet, despite these strides, the Oscars still have a ways to go to prove their commitment to diversity. This was the show’s seventh consecutive year with no female nominees in the Best Director category, after waiting an outlandish 82 years to hand the award to first female winner Kathryn Bigelow. The technical awards noticeably lacked women, with their distribution within the categories largely reflecting the industry standard — costume design and hair and makeup are female-led, whereas cinematography, screenwriting, sound mixing/editing, and pretty much every other field are dominated by men. The Best Actor award went to Casey Affleck, despite appalling and very public accusations of sexual harassment, proving once again (in a long history of licking Woody Allen and Roman Polanski’s boots) that the Hollywood elite cares little for victims of sexual harassment and assault. This year marked the fourth time a black director has been nominated for his craft and lost. In this case, Moonlight‘s Barry Jenkins joined Twelve Years a Slave‘s Steve McQueen as the second black director to win Best Picture, but not Best Director. Though Moonlight took home last night’s grand prize, its white and heterosexual-focused competitors La La Land and Manchester by the Sea garnered nearly every other major award, including Best Director, Best Actress, Best Cinematography (La La Land), and Best Actor and Best Original Screenplay (Manchester by the Sea).
“But wait!” you cry, “Moonlight wasn’t even up for Best Original Screenplay, and it won Best Adapted Screenplay!” Here’s where we get to the mess that was the 89th Oscars’ nominations. Though the Writer’s Guild of America considers Moonlight an original screenplay, and recognized it as such with an award last week, it was relegated to the Best Adapted Oscars category on what many consider to be a technicality. Though Moonlight builds off of Tarrell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, the play was never staged, and the resulting script changes its structure and pacing and adds biographical elements from co-writer/director Barry Jenkins’ own life. Tarrell McCraney earns a much-deserved co-writer credit for the film, but admits that Jenkins changed the source material on his own. The differences between a Best Adapted Screenplay and a Best Original Screenplay nod may seem minuscule, but, as host Kimmel somewhat inappropriately joked after Moonlight‘s win, the former award is considered somewhat less prestigious than the latter. This bizarre decision to deny credit where credit was due is just one in a series of head-scratching nominations.
Viola Davis and Dev Patel’s nominations as supporting actors in their respective films are equally confounding. Patel is unquestionably the protagonist in Lion, while Davis plays the only woman in Fences with major screen time. These nominations are likely the result of producer campaigns to get their stars any nomination whatsoever — as actors are up for either category, regardless of screen time — but that hardly negates the implications of these semi-snubs. It speaks volumes that both Davis, a black female actor, and Patel, the third Indian actor to ever receive a nomination, had a better chance in the supporting categories than they would have as lead contenders. Many celebrated the “end” of #OscarsSoWhite when this year saw people of color nominated in each of the four acting categories, but blissfully ignored the reality of those nominations. The otherwise all-white Best Actor and Actress categories sported one black nominee each (Denzel Washington and Ruth Negga, respectively), neither of whom were exactly favorites to win. And let’s never forget this year’s major snubs for not one, but six of Moonlight‘s actors. #WhereIsTrevantesOscar
While the show itself made clear attempts to acknowledge racial diversity by way of its presenters, the Oscars still has a ways to go before we can say they’ve finally put their money where their mouth is. Between off-color jokes by host Jimmy Kimmel and not-so-great wins, at times it seemed the show paid a lot more lip service to dismantling Trump’s America than it did to actually furthering representation for women, people of color, and other marginalized artists.
“Diversity” has become somewhat of a meaningless buzzword in our cultural lexicon, used to blandly refer to the inclusion of people of color in predominantly white spaces, but it has the potential to mean so much more. The Oscars will not be truly diverse until all kinds of people; including women, LGBT people, and people of varying races, ethnicities, and nationhoods; are represented in both their nominations and wins. That expansion means acknowledging new talent as well, thus pushing Hollywood out of its comfort zone. Jeff Bridges, Meryl Streep, Nicole Kidman, and Michelle Williams are all names parroted every awards season, and it’s time to recognize some new talent — or at least finally award actors who have been waiting in the wings, so that we can all move on. #WhereIsAmysOscar
All in all, this year’s Oscars saw a valiant effort at broadening the awards’ horizons, but in the end, this should just be one try in an ongoing series of efforts. The public will be watching to see if next year’s nominees and winners repeat this same playbook (or worse, revert back to their Wonderbread roots), or if they continue on in this endeavor. Here’s hoping that the 2018 Oscars see less talk and more action — if we’re lucky, maybe we won’t even have to wait another decade for a female directorial nominee.