Four years after #OscarsSoWhite, the 91st Academy Awards headed towards redemption, but fell at the final hurdle

While the Oscars celebrated diversity, Green Book’s victory proved controversial. Alexandra Pollard analyses the 2019 ceremony

Monday 25 February 2019 07:10
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Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, Regina King and Mahershala Ali
Rami Malek, Olivia Colman, Regina King and Mahershala Ali

Sitting among the sea of stars at yesterday evening’s Academy Awards was April Reign, the woman first responsible for the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. Created in 2015, the three-word phrase condensed a crucial, complex conversation about diversity (or lack thereof) into a viral slogan the academy could no longer ignore. Last night, Reign will have had plenty of reason to celebrate.

Two years since the academy took steps to rectify its predominantly white, male demographic by inviting 774 new members – of which 39 per cent were women, and 30 per cent people of colour – to join its ranks, it looks like we’re starting to see progress.

History was made last night, in fact, when Black Panther’s costume designer Ruth Carter, and its production designer Hannah Beachler, both became the first ever African American winners in their categories. “Wow, this has been a long time coming,” said Carter, who celebrated “the empowered way women can look and lead on screen”. In a tweet that has been favourited nearly 30,000 times, The New York Times’s Kyle Buchanan pointed out: “Only 3 black women have won Oscars for anything other than acting. 2 of them just happened tonight.”

Those historic wins came moments after Regina King won Best Supporting Actress for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk. “Regina! Ruth! Hannah!” tweeted Selma director Ava DuVernay. “I’m overcome! Sisters stand up!”

When King won at the Golden Globes last month, she said that the film – an adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel of the same name from Moonlight director Barry Jenkins – was the first time her son had seen himself reflected on screen. It was a sentiment echoed by the directors of Spider-man: Into the Spider-Verse, which won Best Animated Film: “When we hear that someone’s kid has watched the movie, and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me’,” they said, referring to the film’s young, black protagonist, “we feel like we already won.”

Elsewhere, Period. End of Sentence., which tackles the taboo of menstruation in India, won Best Documentary Short. “I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar,” said the film’s director, Rayka Zehtabchi, ending her speech with the declaration: “A period should end a sentence, not a girl’s education.”

And who could forget Spike Lee? Three years after the director boycotted the ceremony due to the overwhelming whiteness of its nominees, and nearly 30 years since his seminal film Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated (Driving Miss Daisy, now considered a weakly patronising take on race relations, won that same year), he was up on stage accepting his first ever Oscar. And he didn’t let his platform go to waste.

Spike Lee at the Oscars (Getty)

Lee, who won Best Adapted Screenplay for BlacKkKlansman, praised the women who helped him get to where he is today, and drew attention to the fact that this year marks 400 years since enslaved people were first forcibly brought to America. “The year, 2019. The year, 1619. History. Her story. 1619. 2019. 400 years,” he said in typical Spike Lee orator style. “Four hundred years. Our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and bought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night. My grandmother, who lived to be 100 years young, who was a Spelman College graduate even though her mother was a slave. My grandmother who saved 50 years of social security checks to put her first grandchild – she called me Spikie-poo ­– through Morehouse College and NYU.”

Rami Malek’s win for Best Actor, meanwhile, was somewhat bittersweet, given that Bohemian Rhapsody is by some margin the worst of the Best Picture nominees, has been accused of mishandling Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, and has been marred by the sexual assault accusations against its director Bryan Singer (allegations that were public knowledge before anyone signed on to work with him). Still, it was hard not to be moved watching Malek proclaim: “We made a film about a gay man, an immigrant, who lived his life just unapologetically himself. The fact I’m here tonight is proof we’re longing for stories like this. I am a son of immigrants from Egypt, and my story is being written right now.”

Roma might have failed to win Best Picture, despite being the odds-on favourite, but at least Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director. In his speech, he thanked the academy for “recognising a film centred around an indigenous woman: a character who has historically been relegated [to] the background in cinema”.

That Roma was beaten in the biggest award of the night by Green Book – a sporadically powerful film, but one whose approach to racism follows the same, white-centring narrative as previous Oscar winners such as Driving Miss Daisy, The Help, and The Blind Side – was perhaps the most surprising moment of the night. “The ref made a bad call,” said Spike Lee at a press conference afterwards. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose.” Get Out director Jordan Peele didn’t even clap when the win was announced. Olivia Colman’s Best Actress win, though, for her hilarious, heartbreaking role in Yorgos Lanthimos’s The Favourite. Her speech was a few minutes of pure joy.

Oscars 2019: April Reign OscarsSoWhite is still an issue 'Until we are no longer having these conversations about firsts in 2019'

Four years on from April Reign’s hashtag, there’s clearly still work to be done. For one thing, there wasn’t a single woman nominated for Best Director, nor was there a female-directed film up for Best Picture. “Until we are no longer having these conversations about firsts in 2019,” said Reign ahead of the evening, “until we see everyone having the opportunity, whether it’s race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability, indigenous people in this country, until we all have an opportunity to see ourselves represented on screen, not just during awards season but all year long, I’ll still continue to talk about #OscarsSoWhite.” But looking at last night’s winners, if this a sign of things to come, it is a very promising sign indeed.

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