Film & Television


For the past few years, the Academy Awards have faced criticism for their lack of diversity. Actually, that’s a bit misleading. Diversity has always been a challenge for the Oscars. It’s just that the industry, press, and public have been more vocal, pointing out inequities and calling for accountability and change.

The pressure started back in 2015, when nominations were announced in January. All twenty nominees across four acting categories were white. Activist April Reign tweeted #OscarsSoWhite they asked to touch my hair. “It trended on the very first day,” Reign remembers. “Initially it was a joke; it wasn’t until maybe a couple days later, when it became clear that the conversation had transitioned to a discussion of the impetus behind it, which was the lack of representation of marginalized communities in the industry itself . . . . Maybe a week before the nominations came out in 2016, people started to hit me up and say, ‘This is looking like its going to be Oscars So White 2.0,’ because the predictions were making it look like it was going to be even more dire.”

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, spurred on by the momentum Reign started and pressure from A-listers Jada Pinkett-Smith, Will Smith, and Spike Lee, among others, released a plan for adding more diversity to its membership within four years.

If Sunday’s ceremony (delayed and significantly redesigned because of COVID) is any indication, that plan is working.

The 93rd Academy Awards celebration took place in L.A.’s Union Station, which was outfitted with a small stage and stepped seating areas, made up mainly of intimate tables, arranged in a pseudo nightclub formation. It was easier to see the attendees, but there were far fewer celebrities to spot (one of the guilty pleasures of a typical Oscars broadcast — especially when the program lags, as it so often does). Except for presenters, attendees were limited to nominees and a single guest. Throughout the broadcast, nominees were patched in from New York, Paris, Berlin, Rome, and other remote locations. The preshow red carpet was particularly lackluster and also a bit concerning. Oscars staff were masked while the presenters, nominees, and their guests were not. After nearly 14 months of pandemic precautions, it was odd to see so many familiar faces — complete with noses and mouths exposed.

The ceremony was smaller and more intimate than usual (and blessedly faster, although it still ran over the allotted three hours). Presenters and nominees alike were asked to focus on more personal stories, so we heard how various people were introduced to film when they were children or started their careers as young adults. Insights ranged from the profound (the creators of multiple award-winner Sound of Metal and their connections to the deaf community) to the mundane (seeing Kramer vs. Kramer at six weeks old) to the quirky and questionable (pouring Milk Duds into popcorn and eating them together). The anecdotes wore thin before the evening was over, as did the rambling acceptance speeches. I’ve always thought the musical cutoffs of Oscars past were rude, but this year may have changed my mind.

That said, the 2021 Academy Awards provided many progressive moments. There were historic firsts, heartfelt pleas for equity and justice, and more diversity than we’ve ever seen.

This was the third year that the Oscars didn’t have a formal “host.” But Regina King, award-winning actress, director, and producer, opened the broadcast and didn’t shy away from controversial current events.

“We are mourning the loss of so many. And I have to be honest, if things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots. I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that.”

The first category was Best Original Screenplay, and the award went to Emerald Fennell for her provocative masterpiece Promising Young Woman. She is the eleventh woman to win the award since 1929, which makes the category far more gender inclusive than others. Fennell, noticeably pregnant (as she was two years ago when she shot her movie), was flustered but genuinely appreciative.

About fifteen minutes later, Jamika Wilson and Mia Neal became the first Black women to win Best Maker-Up and Hairstyling (along with colleague Sergio Lopez-Rivera) for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. In Neal’s acceptance speech she said, “I want to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied, but never gave up. I also stand here, as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling, with so much excitement for the future, because I can picture Black trans women standing up here. And Asian sisters. And our Latina sisters. And Indigenous women. And I know that one day, it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking, it will just be normal.”

The Best Director win was unusual and groundbreaking. Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color, the first Chinese woman, and only the second woman ever to win for Nomadland. She beamed as she accepted the statuette. “This is for anyone who has the faith and the courage to hold on to the goodness in themselves. And to hold on to the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that. And this is for you, you inspire me to keep going.”

History was made again as Yuh-Jung Youn became the first Korean to win in any of the acting categories for her supporting role in Minari. In addition to a shout-out to Brad Pitt, who quickly social-distanced himself after announcing her win, she was both gracious and funny. “I don’t believe in competition. How can I win over Glenn Close? I’ve been watching her, so many performances. All the five nominees, we were the winner for the different movie, we play the different role. So we cannot compete with each other. Tonight, I have just a little bit luck, I think. I’m luckier than you.”

Typically, the Oscars ceremony ends with the two top acting categories, followed by Best Picture. The Academy switched things up this year. Best Picture went to Nomadland, and the film’s star Frances McDormand (who was also a producer) made one of many pleas to return to movie theatres. “Please watch our movie on the largest screen possible, shoulder to shoulder in that dark space.” Within moments. McDormand was recognized again for Best Actress. Best Actor, which closed out the ceremony, had presumably been scheduled for the finale as a tribute to the late Chadwick Boseman, who was expected to win posthumously for his incredible work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. However, in what was certainly the biggest upset of the evening, the award went to Anthony Hopkins for The Father. Hopkins wasn’t at Union Station or at any of the remote locales, so the Academy accepted the prize on his behalf, a bit of an underwhelming letdown after an evening of significant firsts.

Still, there was much to celebrate for women and people of color. As Reign, who started it all six years ago (and is currently CEO of Reignstorm Ventures, where she advocates for marginalized communities in the arts and tech) once said,  “I’m not sure why it would be the wrong approach to have more diversity anywhere. [The Academy’s] goal is to double the number of women and people of color by 2020, and I think that’s a good first step. Because people operate from their own frame of reference. So if there are more diverse Academy members, I’m hoping that means that the Academy as a whole will put more pressure on Hollywood to produce and distribute films that represent the diversity and the beauty and the complexity in all of us. It’s a good first step, and I think there is more that needs to be done.”

This year, at least, we can happily tweet #OscarsSoDifferent.


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