On Sunday night, Brie Larson and Leonardo DiCaprio earned Hollywood’s most coveted prize for portraying harrowing fights for survival.
Their movies Room and The Revenant respectively were powerful depictions of the resilience of the human spirit in the most brutal conditions.
By that standard, then, the awards should have been bestowed on those sitting at home, who had to endure a different kind of torture: listening to Hollywood pontificate about every political cause imaginable instead of focusing on the reason they were all there in the first place: a love of cinema.
Spotlight took home the night’s biggest award with a Best Picture win, and the Revenant nabbed Best Director making Alejandro González Iñárritu the first director since 1951 to have back-toback wins in such a competitive category.
But those triumphs were overshadowed by Hollywood’s diversity problem, an issue that has quietly bubbled beneath the surface for years, but boiled over when 2015’s crop of nominees was announced and no person of color was included.
And then, this year, it happened again.
Calls for a boycott by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and even a hashtag – #OscarsSoWhite – emerged, prompting many to ask: is Hollywood racist? Sunday night did not offer answers to that complicated – and valid – question, but it did try to do so, in its own overwrought way.
“I’m here at the Academy Awards, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards,” host Chris Rock joked, addressing the elephant in the room when he sauntered on stage to deliver his opening monologue.
The comedian, known for his scathing barbs and unconventional take on race in America, was the perfect choice to address such a contentious issue. But even Rock seemed to run out of steam as the show trudged on, at one point asking, “Hey, the show’s not that bad, right?” Not exactly a ringing endorsement for Hollywood’s biggest night.
Virtually every segment dedicated itself to that singular issue – from Rock interviewing moviegoers in Compton, Los Angeles, to Academy of Arts and Sciences head Cheryl Boone Isaacs pledging to instill institutional reforms within the organization, to a montage envisioning this year’s crop of nominees with black actors (hint: had The Martian featured a black astronaut instead of Matt Damon, the guy would have been left on Mars).
The aggregate effect seemed a little much and even smacked of overcompensation.
At times the evening felt as if the Academy was behaving like a philandering, guilt-ridden spouse, constantly adorning his wronged wife with jewels.
The most high-profile appearance of the night was by Vice President Joe Biden, who introduced his “good friend” Lady Gaga who performed the anti-rape anthem “Til it Happens To You,” a nominee for Best Original Song.
Gaga, a survivor of rape herself, was passionate in her delivery and being accompanied by dozens of survivors on stage certainly delivered an emotional sucker-punch. But it was all a little much for a night already dominated by racial tensions.
The Big Short director and writer/ screenwriter Adam McKay jumped on the political bandwagon as well, with a warning to those considering a vote for Donald Trump.
“Most of all, 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: Stop!,” he said before his co-writer, Charles Randolph, professed his love for his wife (in Hebrew!) with a joyful, “Ani ohev otach.”
Of course, Hollywood’s race problem is vast and heavily entrenched within every aspect of the industry. Casting agents hiring a white actor to portray a role meant for a person of color (Emma Stone playing an half- Asian woman in Aloha) and a lack of nuanced roles for diverse performers are just some of the symptoms of a bigger problem.
But let’s get real, this is not going to be solved at the Oscars.
The Oscars are the final result of a very long and complex process; many actors don’t even have the chance to enter the Dolby Theater on this night.
However, as Rock pointed out in his monologue, perhaps some perspective is in order.
“When your grandmother’s swinging from a tree,” he said, “it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
Hopefully, in the coming years we will see a roster of nominees that resemble what is already present in a vibrant television industry, where just last year at the Emmys roles for African Americans, Hispanics and members of the LGBT community were featured prominently and proudly.