Film & Television

The 2016 Oscars: Controversy, Conversation and . . . Cookies

The scolding continued and became much more serious, as Rock reminded the — let’s face it, privileged — audience at the Kodak Center about what real racism looks like. Tonight, he joked, the evening’s “In Memoriam” segment would be dedicated to “Black people shot by cops on their way to the theater.” Whoa.

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One of the best hosts in recent memory, Rock did hit a few sour notes: an unfortunate joke about Rihanna’s panties, for example, as well as introducing the Academy’s new “Director of Minority Outreach,” Stacey Dash (the beauty Dionne from Clueless and currently a conservative pundit). Dash awkwardly smiled and waved, and no one knew what the heck was going on. But, Rock redeemed himself when he encouraged everyone in the audience to purchase Girl Scout cookies from his daughters. (It was reminiscent of Ellen Degeneres ordering pizza in 2014. The Girl Scouts, an organization which has been under attack by pro-life advocates recently, received a nice plug — and $65,000 in cookie sales.

The evening included several other allusions to the racism issue, including some funny parodies of current movies with black actors replacing white ones, and a clever “Black History Month Minute,” hosted by Angela Basset, that turned out to be a tribute to Jack Black. As he accepted Best Director for The Revenant (his second year in a row; after 2015’s Birdman), Alejandro González Iñárritu was upbeat and inspirational, “What a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice . . .  and make sure for once and forever that the color of skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”

A number of presenters and, especially, winners brought their own equally important causes onstage with them. Michael Sugar, co-producer of Spotlight, which won Best Picture, asserted “This film gave a voice to survivors. And this Oscar amplifies that voice, which we hope will become a choir that will resonate all the way to the Vatican.” In both her acceptance speech and her win for Documentary Short, Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy shed light on the horrific tradition of honor killing with A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness. Sam Smith accepted Best Original Song for Bond film Spectre as “a proud gay man and I hope we can all stand as equals someday.” And Leonardo DiCaprio, winning Best Actor (at last, after six nominations) for The Revenant, urged people to recognize and address climate change. ““Let us not take this planet for granted. I do not take tonight for granted.”

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For me, the evening’s most moving segment began with an introduction from Vice President Joe Biden. He urged that “We must and we can change the culture, so that no abused woman or man like the survivors you will see tonight ever feel they have to ask themselves, ‘What did I do?’ They did nothing wrong.” Lady Gaga proceeded to perform her song “Til it Happens to You” from the documentary The Hunting Ground. She was joined onstage by rape survivors and received a standing, tearful, ovation. Although the song didn’t win, its power was undeniable, and my esteem for Gaga continues to grow.

But, with all the issues championed Sunday night, the spotlight shone most on racism. Rock made one of his most important observations early in the show. “It’s not about boycotting anything, we want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. Not just once. Leo gets a great part every year. All you guys get great parts all the time. But what about the black actors?”

Opportunities have to come before recognition. A more diverse, inclusive group of young filmmakers, actors and writers need to have an equal chance to hone their craft — from education to entry-level jobs, financial backing and colorblind casting.

Then we’ll really have an Oscars worth celebrating.

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