Summary: The 2017 Oscars were far less disappointing than last year, but that doesn’t mean this year was amazingly diverse.
2017 is MESSY! The Oscars certainly proved no different, but you had to stay up until the very end to see the full scope of the mess and the triumph.
As the announcers for the best picture category, Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway, sashayed onto the main stage, they said some stuff about diversity and then announced that La La Land had won for best picture. Mid-acceptance speech, the cast and crew of the Oscars realized that a mistake had been made and Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight actually won best picture. Yes. The biggest mistake to have ever aired on TV was glorious.
I would be lying if I told you that I didn’t love seeing black excellence rewarded while white mediocrity lost. Because La La Land was lovely for white folks: it was white escapism that helped reinforce tropes of white masculinity and femininity with black props in the background. Moonlight is a masterpiece and a reality and it deserves to be celebrated.
Black excellence snatched up that award and I was thrilled. A film about black queer people won the Oscar for best picture, and it was delicious.
There were other moments of brilliance during the Oscars last night, moments which made me so happy and so proud:
Viola Davis won her first academy award for supporting actress for her role in Fences, and I wept tears of joy. In her acceptance speech, Davis said this one line which brought me to tears and resonated with me so deeply: “Exhume the stories of the people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition.” There is no one more accomplished than Viola Davis. She embodies the true spirit of what it means to tell someone’s story with sensitivity and unparalleled skill.
The night began so triumphantly for marginalized identities, if you’ve been following Mahershala Ali’s career since sci-fi series 4400 and House of Cards, then it was another moment of pure joy to watch a black Muslim actor win for his role as best supporting actor in Moonlight. It felt hopeful and affirming to see talent rewarded so justly, his performance was moving, elegant and intimate. Ali and his wife, Amatus Sami-Karim, just welcomed their baby daughter into the world five days ago. His win was emotional on so many different levels and I will always feel renewed by black joy.
But there were some low points during the ceremony, of course. I generally brace myself for uncomfortable moments whenever there’s an awards ceremony not hosted by a black woman, (#WandaSykesOscars2018).
Jimmy Kimmel walked onto the Oscars stage last night and hit some predictably uncomfortable moments. I say predictably, because white people can’t help but be racist; it’s a part of who they are, especially when they think they’re one of the nice white people.
Kimmel’s initial call for unity, while ignoring how unity usually hinges upon marginalized identities allowing their dehumanization, was the beginning of other missteps, which included him using actor Sunny Pawar as a Simba prop to replay the scene from The Lion King; followed by a backhanded reminder to Academy Award winner Mahershala Ali that he was different and an “other” amongst his peers in the room; and then there was that awkward part where he mispronounced a non-Anglo name and made fun of it in front of millions of people. It was white mediocrity dependent on punching downwards instead of upwards.
Other darker moments included Casey Affleck winning the award for best actor, despite allegations of sexual harassment surfacing during his campaign for an Oscar. In his acceptance speech, he mentioned Denzel Washington, saying, “One of the first people who taught me how to act was Denzel Washington, and I just met him tonight for the first time. Thank you.” It honestly felt like salt in the wound after Washington had just lost the award to Affleck for his lead role in Fences.
One of my favorite moments included a brilliant speech by Iranian filmmaker Ashgar Farhadi, who won best foreign language film for The Salesman. Farhadi protested the Oscars over President Trump’s inhumane travel ban. Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space, read Farhadi’s words for him at the ceremony, some of which included the following:
“Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear — a deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers are able to use their art to emphasize ‘shared human qualities and break stereotypes,’ fostering ‘an empathy which we need today more than ever.'”
Overall, the Oscars were far less disappointing than last year, where there were almost no people of color represented amongst the nominees. But that doesn’t mean that this year was amazingly diverse. Diversity goes beyond simply representing black people and our contributions to the arts. It means hiring black and non-black people of color to write screenplays, direct movies, shoot locations, edit sound and do makeup.
The film industry is still overwhelmingly white, and giving us a few awards here and there isn’t enough.