It was easy to understand why. The late Chadwick Boseman, nominated for his visceral performance in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was the runaway favourite, and an acceptance speech by his widow was sure to be an emotional moment. Further, the best actor prize had gone to a Black man only four times in 93 years, and celebrating Boseman at the night’s climax — after a year in which racial justice was at the forefront of the country’s consciousness — would put an exclamation point on the academy’s aggressive diversity and inclusion efforts over the past few years.
It backfired in spectacular fashion.
The film establishment instead went with Anthony Hopkins, rewarding his performance in “The Father” as a man suffering from dementia. Apparently certain that Boseman would win, Hopkins had decided not to attend the ceremony. With no one there to accept the award, the Oscars telecast abruptly ended, leaving the academy to face questions about whether it had misjudged its voting body.
“At 83 years old, I did not expect to get this award — I really didn’t,” Hopkins said in a video speech released Monday morning from his hometown in Wales and during which he paid tribute to Boseman.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which declined to make officials available for interviews Monday, has spent the past few years trying to get its house in order after being excoriated for putting forward all-white slates of acting nominees in both 2015 and 2016. It has scrambled to enact diversity-focused reforms, most notably inviting about 4,000 artists and executives — with a focus on women and people from underrepresented groups — to become members. The organization now has about 10,000 voters. It says that about 19% of its members are from underrepresented racial and ethnic communities, up from 10% in 2015.
This year’s ceremony had a chance to be a showcase for those efforts. Going into Sunday night, some awards handicappers predicted that movie history would be made, with all four acting Oscars going to people of colour for the first time. Along with Boseman, Viola Davis was seen as a leading contender for the best actress prize for playing a blues singer in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Best actress instead went to Frances McDormand for playing a dour van dweller in “Nomadland.” It was her third best-actress statuette.
Still, the most diverse group of nominees in Oscar history resulted in several notable victories for supporting roles: Daniel Kaluuya, who played Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and Yuh-Jung Youn, for her comically cantankerous grandmother in “Minari.” She was the first Korean performer to win an acting Oscar, and only the second Asian woman. Chloé Zhao, who is Chinese, took home the best director prize, only the second woman to do so in Oscar history and the first woman of color.
Two Black women, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, won Oscars for makeup and hairstyling for the first time. Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) was the first woman to take home a solo screenwriting Oscar in 13 years. And director Travon Free was the first Black man to win in the best live-action short category. He was recognised for “Two Distant Strangers,” a film about police brutality that he made with Martin Desmond Roe.
“This is the blackest Oscars of all time,” quipped Lil Rel Howery, who served as an MC for a music trivia game that took place toward the end of the telecast and featured Glenn Close dancing to “Da Butt,” a song from the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s “School Daze.”
Many agreed that the diversity of this year’s winners proved that the movie industry had become more inclusive. Others wonder if it is simply another anomaly in a strange year, one in which most studios delayed releasing many of their bigger-budget films because theatres were closed across the country, and those movies that were released tended to be smaller, independent films seen largely on streaming services — if they were seen at all.
“Like everything else, the pandemic affected the way movies were released, which affected, ultimately, the way people in films were nominated,” said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. “It’ll be difficult to know, until a few more years pass, whether this year is actually representative of something or if it’s just a circumstance of the pandemic.”
Hollywood has been here before. In 2002, when Halle Berry won best actress for “Monster’s Ball,” best actor went to Denzel Washington (“Training Day”). It was the first time those prizes were awarded to people of colour in the same year, prompting Washington to remark “Two birds in one night” from the Oscar stage.
It seemed to be a moment of progress. But since then no other Black woman has won best actress, and the last Black man to win best actor was Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) in 2007. The academy has been a bit more inclusive in supporting categories. In the previous 20 years, there had been four Latino or Black supporting actor winners (none have been Asian), and six Black supporting actress winners (none were Asian or Latina).
“There’s so much work to do, guys, and that’s on everyone in this room,” Kaluuya said during his acceptance speech. “That’s not a single-man job. Every single one of you has work to do.”
The academy’s efforts to diversify its membership came after decades of relative stagnation. In 2008, for instance, only 105 people were invited to join.
As part of its 2016 overhaul pledge, the group sharply increased the Oscar voting pool, inviting 4,046 artists and executives to become members over five years, including 1,383 from overseas. Virtually everyone invited to join the academy accepts, though not all. One of the industry’s most prominent Black directors, Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”), recently revealed that he did not accept the academy’s overtures.
Last year, the academy announced a plan that will require films to meet diversity criteria to be eligible for a best-picture nomination, starting with the 2024 awards.
Still, those who have been critical of the way the film industry operates are not ready to heap too much praise on the academy’s efforts.
“What we have to constantly recognise is that an institution like the academy didn’t give anything to Black people,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice organisation Colour of Change. “What the academy has done over the years is have a system and a set of rules that has stalled Black careers, which has prevented people from being able to be fully seen, which has had an economic impact on folks. Now that they are working to make some changes, let’s acknowledge those changes but let’s not give them any awards that they haven’t earned.”
The years long process has been wrenching for the academy.
Inside the secretive organization, factions formed, with some people insisting that the problem was not with the academy, but with film companies and the lack of opportunities they provide for people of colour. That many of the academy members also worked for these companies was another point of contention.
A glimpse of the animosity came when Bill Mechanic, an Oscar-nominated producer and former studio executive, resigned from the academy’s board in 2018.
“We have settled on numeric answers to the problem of inclusion, barely recognizing that this is the industry’s problem far, far more than it is the academy’s,” Mechanic wrote in his resignation letter, which was leaked to the news media. “Instead we react to pressure. One governor even went as far as suggesting we don’t admit a single white male to the academy, regardless of merit!”
At the same time, some people have turned away from the Oscars because of its lack of diversity. Under 10 million viewers tuned into Sunday night’s telecast, according to Nielson, a 58% drop compared with last year. One member of the academy’s board of governors, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of confidentiality rules, said that market research had shown that people of colour, upset about the racial disparity of nominees (and tired of seeing many of the same people get nominated over and over), had become less interested in the ceremony. A couple of smaller civil rights groups have called for viewing boycotts.
That was the case for April Reign, the campaign finance lawyer who originated the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015. Despite the changes at the organization, she said she believed the academy’s efforts to diversify its voting body had fallen short.
“It’s still a popularity contest among all the white men,” she said.
Others see reason for optimism in this year’s Oscars, no matter how they ended.
“To have a film about Fred Hampton that doesn’t demonize him but instead celebrates him, and provides this broader story from a group of Black filmmakers, is, you know, kind of hard to believe that it would even be made much less be nominated,” Boyd said of “Judas and the Black Messiah.” “And we could go through each of these examples. It’s great. It’s wonderful. I just don’t want it to be an isolated incident.”
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