On Sunday night, Brie Larson and Leonardo DiCaprio earned Hollywood’s most coveted prize for portraying a harrowing fight for survival.
Their movies Room and The Revenant respectively, were powerful depictions of the resilience of the human spirit against the most brutal torture and deprivation.
By that standard, then, the 88th Academy Awards should have been bestowed to those sitting at home who endured a different kind of torture: listening to Hollywood pontificate about every political cause imaginable instead of focusing on the reason they are 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 to back 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 last year’s crop of nominees were announced and no person of color was included.
And then, this year, it happened again.
Calls of a boycott by Will and Jada Pinkett Smith and even its own hashtag -#OscarsSoWhite - emerged, prompting many to ask one specific question: 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, to Academy of Arts and Sciences head Cheryl Boone Isaacs pledging to instill institutional reforms within the organization, to a montage envisioning this years crop of nominees had black people starred them (hint: had the Martian featured a black astronaut instead of Matt Damon, the guy would have been left on Mars).
The aggregate effect of these bits seemed a little much and even smacked of overcompensation.
At times the evening felt as if the Academy behaved like a cheating guilt-ridden spouse, constantly adoring his wronged wife with jewels in the hopes she won’t be upset with him anymore.
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 “Till 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 in 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 a African Americans, Hispanics and members of the LGBT community were featured prominently and proudly.