Oscars Diversity and the Power of Getting Mad

  • Copy by: Daryl Lindsey

Well, that was an Oscars for the books, wasn’t it?

The 89th Academy Awards ended with a plot twist even most Hollywood writers would call far-fetched: “Moonlight” took home Best Picture, but only after “La La Land” was announced as the winner by mistake, and the film’s cast and crew had already climbed on stage to accept the award. The awkward snafu, unfortunately, detracts from how historic “Moonlight” ‘s win truly is: The coming-of-age drama about a gay black man growing up in Miami is the first-ever film with an all-black cast to win Best Picture.

That is a big deal, especially after The Academy came under fire in recent years for lack of diversity. All 20 actors nominated for awards in supporting and lead roles were white in 2015 and 2016, prompting the viral #OscarsSoWhite. And the public outcry reached well beyond Twitter. Actors like Will Smith and Jada Pinkett-Smith and directors like Spike Lee boycotted the 2016 ceremony altogether. Major news outlets covered the controversy, published op-eds, and pointed out that, as of 2012, Oscar voters were 94 percent white and 77 percent male. The stats are even worse for people deciding what movies are even made: As recent as 2015, Hollywood studio heads are 94 percent white and a whopping, wait for it, 100 percent male. 

When the people casting the votes make up only one demographic, there is no room for other communities to be represented. The stats call to mind the 2015 Emmy acceptance Speech by Viola Davis, who also took home an Oscar for her work in “Fences” this year: “The only thing separating women of color from everyone else is opportunity. You cannot win… for roles that are simply not there.”

We have power as members of the public and consumers of media to demand change. 

Fast forward to the here and now. The Academy listened. At the height of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the Academy voted unanimously to double female and minority members by 2020. A record six Black actors were nominated for the “supporting” and “lead” role categories. Four directors of color were nominated for Best Documentary Feature, including Ava DuVernay, the first black woman director to be nominated. Muslim directors took home awards for Best Foreign Language Film and Best Documentary Short.

I’m not patting the Academy on the back for these improvements. The increase in diversity doesn’t speak to any newfound enlightenment in Oscar voters, but rather to the power we have as members of the public and consumers of media to demand change. When the Oscars failed to accurately represent the breathtaking spectrum of artists and creators all over the world, people got mad, then they got loud. We wielded the power to hold The Academy accountable, and they had no choice but to listen to us or be left behind to flounder in irrelevance.

More artists of color continued to be recognized, including Mahershala Ali as Best Actor in a Supporting Role in “Moonlight,” and Viola Davis for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in “Fences.” “Moonlight” writers Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won Best Adapted Screenplay, accepting the award with brief but inspiring speeches. “This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls, and non-gender conforming [people], who don’t see themselves. We are trying to show you, you and us,” McCraney said. Jenkins expressed similar sentiments. “For all you people who feel like there is no mirror out there for you, that you feel your life is not reflected, the Academy has your back. The ACLU has your back, we have your back,” he said. 

“Moonlight,” arguably the year’s most groundbreaking film, went on to win the most prestigious award of the evening: Best Picture.

But not until after one of the most awkward and buzzworthy mix-ups of all time. Faye Dunaway erroneously announced “La La Land” as the winner, and the cast and crew had already gathered on stage and begun their acceptance speeches when it became clear that Warren Beatty was somehow given the “Best Actress” envelope instead of the “Best Picture.”

Not only was the mistake profoundly embarrassing for just about everyone involved, but it robbed “Moonlight” of the winning moment it deserved.

Instead of celebrating people of color and the LGBTQ community and reveling in the fact that, literally for the first time, a movie with an all-black cast won Best Picture, the cast and crew was left flustered and bewildered, accepting the award amidst apologies from Beatty and Kimmel, while the millions who would have been listening intently were too busy freaking out at the mistake. Whether or not the mix-up was truly an accident or purposefully done for the buzz remains to be seen, but either way, what should have been a moment of pure celebration was instead reduced to a punchline.

“When I did see security or people coming onstage and their moment was being disrupted in some way I got really worried and then they said ‘ “Moonlight,” you guys have won.’ It just threw me, more than a bit,” Ali told the New York Times. “I didn’t want to go up there and take anything from somebody. It’s very hard to feel joy in a moment like that.”

I hope, now that the initial drama has passed, the team who made “Moonlight “feels true joy and pride at their accomplishment. I hope we can all look past what was, let’s face it, a monumental error to celebrate what an amazing film it truly is, and how deserving it is of this honor.

I hope we remember that the Academy listened when the world demanded better representation. We do not need to accept the things we cannot change. Instead, we can change the things we cannot accept –– because collective voices have the power to do just about anything.