Oscars 2016: How Chris Rock put the race row centre stage on a night dominated by big issues

This year will be remembered less for the white film-makers who won than for those of colour who were not nominated

Tim Walker
Los Angeles
Monday 29 February 2016 20:18
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Screen talk: Chris Rock made the audience uncomfortable
Screen talk: Chris Rock made the audience uncomfortable

In the not-too-distant past, Oscar winners who brought their politics with them to the stage risked being booed off by an unsympathetic Hollywood elite. This year, though, the elite was made to sit uncomfortably as host Chris Rock schooled them on the soft racism of the US film industry.

“If they nominated hosts, I wouldn’t even get this job,” Rock joked, in a pointed opening monologue that played awkwardly in the room but well for posterity. This Oscar year will be remembered less for the white film-makers who won than for those of colour who were not nominated.

And the issues did not end with #OscarsSoWhite. Leonardo DiCaprio, accepting his first Oscar for Best Actor, took the opportunity to warn his audience that climate change is “the most urgent threat facing our entire species”, urging them to “work together and stop procrastinating”.

Chris Rock's opening monologue from Oscars 2016

When Spotlight, about the journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church child abuse scandal, won Best Picture, producer Michael Sugar said he hoped its message would “resonate all the way to the Vatican” and called on Pope Francis to “protect the children and restore the faith”.

Adam McKay, writer-director of the financial crash comedy The Big Short, took home the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, but not before saying: “If you don’t want big money to control government, don’t vote for candidates that take money from big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires!”

Leonardo DiCaprio talked about climate change (EPA)

Speaking of government, US Vice-President Joe Biden attended – the first to do so since 1931 – to highlight the issue of rape culture, and to introduce Lady Gaga’s performance of the Oscar-nominated “Til it Happens to You”, from campus rape documentary The Hunting Ground.

With the Academy facing unprecedented criticism for its lack of diversity, the organisation’s president Cheryl Boone Isaacs appeared on stage during Sunday night’s ceremony at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles to assure both her members and the public that the organisation was committed to change.

“It’s not enough to just listen and agree” that the film industry is insufficiently diverse, she said. “Everybody 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.”

Rock did not let his audience off lightly after his monologue, peppering the ceremony with skits on the same theme, including one in which black performers were inserted into scenes from Oscar-nominated movies starring white actors. In another pre-recorded segment highlighting the distance between the industry and its audience, Rock spoke to black movie-goers in Compton, 20 miles from Hollywood, many of whom had not heard of – let alone seen – the year’s Best Picture nominees.

While black nominees were lacking, there were several Latino winners, including a second consecutive Best Director gong for Alejandro González Iñárritu, Mexican director of The Revenant; and an unprecedented third Oscar in a row for its Mexican cinematographer, Emanuel Lubezki.

Mad Max: Fury Road collected the heaviest haul, winning six technical awards.

Brie Larson was named Best Actress for her role in Room, while Alicia Vikander won the Best Supporting Actress award for The Danish Girl. In a heart-warming moment, the celebrated Italian composer Ennio Morricone received a lengthy standing ovation after winning his first Academy Award – at 87 – for the score to Quentin Tarantino’s western The Hateful Eight.

Lady Gaga sang about rape culture

It was a fine night for British talent, with Mark Rylance upsetting Sylvester Stallone to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. Singer Sam Smith won Best Original Song for his Bond theme, “Writing’s on the Wall”.

Smith dedicated his award to the LGBT community, though he struck a flat note by suggesting he was the first openly gay man ever to win an Oscar. In fact, there have been several gay winners, including in his own category, among them Stephen Sondheim and Sir Elton John.

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