By Tim Rosenberger
The big question on everybody’s lips before Sunday night’s ABC telecast of the 88th Academy Awards ceremony at LA’s Dolby Theatre was not who was going to win this or that award. It was how the biggest night for Hollywood would handle the diversity issue people have been talking about for the last month. The answer? Very well, but that wasn’t the only topic on people’s minds. Sexual assault, LGBT communities, climate change and the corrupted power of big banks all made cameo appearances.
The diversity topic started on the red carpet during the coverage pre-show. Not only were two of ABC’s pre-show hosts African-Americans – veteran Oscars reporter Robin Roberts, and Michael Strahan — but an opening montage narrated by Morgan Freeman made sure that black actresses Lupita Nyong’o and Whoopi Goldberg appeared among the clips of the past Academy Award winners.
While few white personalities outside of comedian and actress Tina Fey talked about it, such African-Americans as actress Kerry Washington, actor and comedian Kevin Hart, and Academy Award-winning actor Louis Gossett Jr. spoke about the diversity controversy.
The ceremony itself addressed the elephant in the room right away. “I counted at least 15 black people on that montage,” host Chris Rock joked after an opening film montage of the year’s movies.
This is not the first time African-Americans were under-represented at the Oscars, he continued. It happened in the 1960s whenever famed black actor Sidney Poitier didn’t make a movie, and no one protested then, he quipped. They had real things to protest, he said, like African-Americans being raped or lynched. He even made a pointed joke about how this year’s in-memoriam section was going to exclusively feature black people shot, he said, by cops on their way to movie theaters.
Hollywood is racist, Rock said. But it is a special kind of sorority racism. As he put it, “We like you Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.”
The host was not all jokes. He had some serious thoughts to offer.
“[The diversity issue is] not about boycotting anything,” Rock said. “It’s just we want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it. That’s it. Not just once. Leo[nardo DiCaprio] gets a great part every year. All you [white actors] get great parts all the time, but what about the black actors?”
The diversity theme remained strong throughout the night. The Academy announced a new minority outreach program, and there were a few pre-filmed, comedic parodies on the topic.
One featured scenes from “The Revenant,” “Joy,” “The Martian” and “The Danish Girl” with black actors replacing the movies’ actual Oscar-nominated stars.
Two other funny pre-filmed bits also joked about the issue. A Black History Month Minute narrated by black actress Angela Bassett appeared to honor snubbed actor Will Smith. Instead the actor featured in the clip turned out to be white actor Jack Black.
In a short montage, Rock interviewed random African-American moviegoers in LA’s Compton neighborhood. None had seen any of the white-dominated Best Picture nominees, though some had seen Oscar-nominated “Straight Outta Compton.” Others had serious things to say about diversity when Rock gave them an Oscar and asked them to express how they felt about diversity in Hollywood.
“This should be not just white,” one black moviegoer said, pointing to the Oscar statuette. “It should be Asian, Hispanic [and etc.]. There’s so much talent out there of all races.”
Although it was the prominent theme of the night, there was more to the ceremony than talk about diversity. An Oscar winner in 2014, actor Eddie Redmayne was nominated this year for “The Danish Girl.” During a pre-show interview he emphasized that the film, based on the true story of transgendered woman Lili Elbe, takes place 100 years ago, But real progress, he said, has only been made in recent years.
Lady Gaga, who co-wrote the Oscar-nominated song “Til it Happens to You,” which deals with rape, talked during the pre-show about the high rate of men and women victimized by sexual assault during their college years. Vice-President Joe Biden spoke about the problem as he introduced Lady Gaga’s live performance of the song during the ceremony.
Another issue of the evening was the importance of investigative journalism, explored in “Spotlight,” which won the Best Picture award. The film is based on the true story of Boston Globe journalists who uncovered an epidemic of children raped and molested by American Catholic priests.
Although some of his jokes fell flat, Rock did an admirable job as host. Throughout the evening, serious issues were well balanced with jokes and earnest praise for movies and the hard-working people who make them.
Comedian and actor Louis C.K., who presented the award for Best Short Documentary, reminded the audience that movie-making is not all glamour and million dollar profits. Those who make short documentary films, he said, rarely see a profit or hear much praise for their work.
In addition to the Best Picture win for “Spotlight,” notable awards included the long-awaited Best Actor award for Leonardo DiCaprio for “The Revenant.” Brie Larson won Best Actress for “Room,” and for the second consecutive year, Best Director went to Mexican Alejandro G. Iñárritu for “The Revenant.” He won last year for “Birdman.”
Veteran Italian composer Ennio Morricone, long respected for his scores for such Westerns as “A Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” won his first Academy Award, for Best Original Score for “The Hateful Eight.”
And the first Academy Award ever given to a resident of The Republic of Chile went to Pato Escala Pierart, producer, and Gabriel Osorio Vargas, director, winners for the Best Animated Short film for “Bear Story.”.
The ceremony honored the past year in films, but Academy President Cheryl Boone-Isaacs made one strong comment during the ceremony about the future work of the Academy and those in Hollywood.
“The Oscars celebrate the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film, and with that opportunity, comes responsibility,” she said. “Our audiences are global and rich in diversity, and every facet of our industry should be as well. Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today.”