And just like that, another Oscars has drawn to a close. If, like me, you stayed up to watch all three and a half hours of the 88th Academy Awards live, you probably need this post like you need someone to punch you in the face over and over again, while repeating “diversity, diversity, diversity”. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that unfolded and gathered steam when this year’s nominations revealed not a single person of colour amongst the 20 acting nominations, there was no doubt the Academy was going to have acknowledge the issue. But in the aftermath of last night’s ceremony, it’s unclear just how adeptly they confronted it.
What is clear is that they tried. On a number of levels they tried to embrace change, mixing up the traditional running order and allowing for segments with a looser presentation style, an attempt to freshen up a format that has proved too static for a rapid-fire social media age that demands a constant stream of memes and moments.
With the roster of presenters, they tried to display this newfound commitment to diversity we’ve heard so much about in the last few weeks, making it, at least on the surface, a case of #OscarsNotSoWhiteAfterAll.
Joe Biden addresses rape culture on college campuses. Naturally.
And Hollywood’s crustiest, most conservative institution for the first time showed a willingness to welcome controversial issues to its stage, allowing Vice President Joe Biden to use his introduction of Lady Gaga’s performance of Til It Happens to You to frankly address rape culture; allowing Gaga to flood the stage with survivors of sexual assault; and rewarding Spotlight with Best Picture, giving director Tom McCarthy a platform to challenge the Vatican on child sexual abuse. Throw in Leo using his acceptance speech to highlight environmental issues, and Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, the producer of the Best Documentary Short, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, using her 60 seconds to talk about honour killings in Pakistan, and you had an Oscars that felt politically charged beyond that one key issue of diversity, and perhaps just a bit too joyless as a result.
A gimmick-free Lady Gaga shared the stage with survivors of sexual assault.
And cynics might argue that that’s exactly how the Academy would play it, aiming to take the focus off the elephant in the room – and were it not for Chris Rock’s skilled smack down of that elephant, I might be inclined to agree. Received rapturously on Twitter, and then questioned and criticised within, oh… 15 minutes or so, as tends to be the case on the internet once people have had a quick minute to put the “think” in their “think pieces”, Chris Rock’s opening monologue, to me, was a withering take down of the institutional racism in Hollywood that actively prevents any hope of diversity at the Oscars by shutting the door to people of colour at the earliest stages of film production.
Morgan Freeman presents best film to the almost all white Spotlight team.
As Morgan Freeman told Variety last week: “If we’re going to talk about diversity in the film industry, we don’t need to start with the Academy Awards. We need to start somewhere way back — with the producers, the directors, the casting agents, the writers. It should be an open field.” That sentiment was echoed by Chris Rock when he left aside the comedy for a genuinely impassioned plea: “It’s not about boycotting anything, it’s just… we want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it.”
And as for the comedy? Well Tina Fey was right to point out on the red carpet that Chris Rock needed no advice from her, calling him “the greatest living American stand up comedian.” The audience at times visibly squirmed as he segued from crowd pleasers like “Jada (Pinkett Smith) boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties… I wasn’t invited!” to the pointed observation that there were at least 71 other years where the Oscars were #SoWhite, and perhaps there was no talk of boycotting those years because “when your grandmother is swinging from a tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short…”; and props to the show’s director for finding and holding some quality reactions shots. Want to see Matt Damon nervously wonder if his contribution to the diversity debate is coming up? We got it. Want to see Leo sweat it out as he wonders if he’s about to be made the butt of a joke on his big night? Got that too…
And the inspired cut to Jada’s fellow TV stars Sofia Vergara and Priyanka Chopra, who enjoyed that shade a little too much? They went there as well.
Sofia Vergara – isn’t SHE on a tv show? – enjoying the Jada shade a bit too much at last night’s #Oscars…A video posted by The Dress Down (@thedressdown) on
It’s a curious response from an Indian woman and an Hispanic woman to a joke that, in the context of a superbly crafted ten minute set – honed over the last few weeks in front of no less an audience than Louis CK, Dave Chapelle, Dane Cook and Marc Maron – felt like a low blow, given that black women are statistically the most marginalised in the Hollywood system, but the other problem with the opening and the show at large was that the diversity issue was drawn out on strictly black and white lines.
It took a random contributor interviewed by Rock outside a cinema in Compton to point out that the Oscars should be “not just white, they should be black, Asian, Hispanic… there’s so much talent out there!”, and that oversight by Rock and the show’s producers that diversity doesn’t begin and end with hiring black actors to be in films was probably why the two unbelievably racist Asian jokes bombed so badly and felt so out of place.
With all that said though, the whole proceedings felt about one million years removed from having to watch Seth McFarlane singing about the boobs of the best actress nominees, so while it wasn’t exactly #OscarsSoRight, its attempts to be #OscarsSoRightOn should probably be applauded.