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Oscars Capture the Moment in a Fast-Changing World

The biggest surprise of Sunday night’s Oscars was how the ceremony transcended the usual self-congratulatory air of Hollywood awards shows.

Winners talked about racial inequalities, immigration policy, anti-gay prejudice, women’s rights, ALS, veterans health and Alzheimer’s. This has to be the first Academy Awards in which suicide prevention was mentioned in two separate acceptance speeches.

“Artists have the honest duty to reflect the times in which we live,” said John Legend, quoting Nina Simone. After he and Common won best song (“Glory” from “Selma”), the two spoke powerfully about topics addressed in the number, including voting equality, and the disproportionate incarceration of black men in the U.S.

In the final minutes of the 3½-hour show, “Birdman” triple winner Alejandro G. Inarritu raised the hot-button topic of Mexicans living in the States: “I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones that came before, and built this incredible, immigrant nation.”

Adapted-screenplay winner Graham Moore (“The Imitation Game”) talked about the ostracizing of gays like WWII genius Alan Turing, then shocked the
audience by admitting that he had attempted suicide at age 16, because “I felt like I did not belong.” The writer then urged anyone who feels like a misfit to “Stay weird, stay different.”

The topic of suicide was also brought up by Dana Perry, winner (with Ellen Goosenberg Kent) for the docu short “Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1.”

It’s been a turbulent year for the world and the entertainment industry, which has faced issues like disruptive technology and cyber-terrorist attacks. The corporate-owned studios are becoming increasingly cautious in business decisions, embracing the “tsunami of superhero movies,” as “Nightcrawler” writer-director Dan Gilroy observed when accepting his Indie Spirit awards Feb. 21.

Oscar voters rejected the comicbook mindset, giving top prizes to filmmakers who have a unique and maverick voice, with movies like “Birdman,” “Boyhood,” “American Sniper” and “Selma.”

In their acceptance speeches, the winners put the emphasis on global concerns, rather than industry-specific problems. But in truth, it’s hard to separate them. Showbiz is in many ways a microcosm of what’s going on in “the real world.”

“Selma,” for example, raised industry issues about voters’ over-reliance on screeners and the unrealistic timetables of the awards season. But more importantly, it posed questions about America’s racial tensions and dire need for diversity.

If movies reflected the demographics of the U.S. population, Academy voters would have been watching dozens of films — not just one — directed by African-American women. So the racial imbalance extended beyond the problem of the Academy being predominantly white and male to the industry as a whole and in turn, in positions of power, to the world itself. Similarly, best-pic winner “Birdman” is much more than a satiric look at life in showbiz, as some have misread it. The film looks at a man with feelings of unimportance as everything around him is changing, living in an ADD era in which everyone is bombarded by information. He is Everyman, with deep fears of personal and spiritual inadequacy, asking the universal question: “What is my place in the world?”

To some cynics, the Oscar-show soapboxing was typical Hollywood behavior, espousing “liberal” causes on the world stage. But there was something beyond that happening on the Dolby stage.

The nominees and winners of the 87th Academy Awards reflected the movie business’s divided culture, which in turn is representative of the turbulent times in which we live. To coin a phrase, “Je suis showbiz.”

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