When the Oscar nominees were announced in January, there wasn’t a single non-white actor nominated − for the second year in a row. Considering there were plenty of Oscar-worthy performances from non-white actors (e.g. Michael B. Jordan in Creed, Idris Elba in Beasts of No Nation or Benicia del Toro in Sicario, just to name a few), the white-washed nominations sparked a social media firestorm.
Within hours, #OscarsSoWhite was trending and people were planning Oscars boycott parties. Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith (who was also overlooked as a nominee for his role in Concussion) and Spike Lee announced their plans to boycott the Oscars ceremony. There were also plenty of calls for host Chris Rock to quit in protest. (Thankfully, he didn’t.)
The Oscars suffered a full-fledged PR nightmare, and the ceremony was still eight weeks away.
The outrage subdued in the weeks leading up to Sunday’s ceremony, but my big question for the evening was how/if the Academy was going to address the controversy, and would that help or hurt them.
It took about 15 seconds to get the answer.
Not only did the ceremony address the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, the ceremony was about the controversy. And it worked, thanks almost entirely to Chris Rock’s unapologetic commentary and the Academy’s willingness to let him say whatever he wanted to. Instead of joining the boycott, he used his platform to tackle the longstanding issues of racism and inequality.
From the opening monologue to his closing remarks, Rock reminded both the audience in the Dolby Theater and the millions watching at home that racism is still a problem in Hollywood, and everywhere else. He was unflinching, direct and willing to take on the Academy and the protesters in the same breath. And he wasn’t the only one.
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, used her annual speech to address the need for greater diversity in the Academy, and Hollywood at large. Kevin Hart veered off script when introducing The Weeknd’s musical performance to applaud all the actors and actresses of color who didn’t get nominated. And two-time best director winner Alejandro G. Iñárritu (The Revenant) expressed his hope that soon the color of someone’s skin will be as irrelevant as the length of their hair.
Racism and prejudice are serious issues that require serious considerations, but Chris Rock still brought plenty of laughs (and a few squirms). One of his best bits involved recreating the night’s nominated films with black actors. Seriously, check it out.
While some may criticize the ceremony for being “too political,” at the end of the night it was clear that the ceremony needed to be political. The Academy needed to address #OscarsSoWhite head on, not only to acknowledge the controversy, but as the first step in moving past it.
That’s ultimately what the 88th Academy Awards was about: admitting there is a problem with race and inclusivity in Hollywood so the industry can start to fix it. The Academy’s willingness to address the controversy instead of ignore it helps them repair the damage caused by #OscarsSoWhite and build a new reputation of inclusivity. It’s also a reminder to any organization suffering a crisis that it’s best to honestly address your critics.
Thanks to the 88th Academy Awards, this will (maybe) be the last year we need a hashtag like #OscarsSoWhite. (Hopefully.)