After the humiliating back-to-back scandal of #OscarsSoWhite for the 2014 and 2015 Academy Awards, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences set itself to aggressively increasing representation within its membership. By expanding the perspectives of its voters, the hope was that a greater diversity of voices could find recognition at the Oscars.
Five years later at the 93rd Oscars, several major milestones were indeed achieved for representation. Yuh-jung Youn (“Minari”), winner for best supporting actress, was the first Korean actor to ever win an Oscar, and only the second Asian woman. Chloé Zhao was the second woman ever to win best director, and the first woman of color. Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson were the first Black women to win makeup and hairstyling. And with Daniel Kaluuya (“Judas and the Black Messiah”) winning best supporting actor, half the acting winners were people of color.
Granted, that was from a record-setting nine acting nominees who were people of color, and many prognosticators believed there was a strong possibility that four of those nine would make up all of the acting winners this year for the first time in Oscar history. The late Chadwick Boseman’s loss to Anthony Hopkins for best actor was especially shocking, and once again, Halle Berry remains the only woman of color ever to win best actress.
Beyond the winners list, however, this year’s Academy Awards spent considerable time putting the faces and concerns of people of color, especially Black Americans, front and center. The pre-show was hosted by Ariana DeBose — who plays Anita in Steven Spielberg’s “West Side Story” — and “Get Out” and “Judas and the Black Messiah” co-star Lil Rel Howery, and the telecast opened with Regina King walking through Los Angeles’ Union Station to rousing music spun by the evening’s DJ, Questlove.
King then began the show by referencing the Derek Chauvin verdict, noting that had it gone a different way, she would’ve traded her heels for marching boots.
“I know the fear that so many live with and no amount of fame or fortune changes that,” she said.
For a telecast that has historically remained strenuously apolitical, King’s sentiment was far from alone.
Accepting makeup and hairstyling, Neal paid tribute to her grandfather, “an original Tuskegee Airman” who had to stay at a YMCA to attend Northwestern University and was denied a teaching job in his hometown. She then expressed hope that Asian, Latino, indigenous and Black trans women will all have the opportunity to win an Oscar in her category.
“I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking; it will just be normal,” she said.
Best live-action short winner Travon Free — whose film “Two Distant Strangers” depicts a Black man stuck in a time-loop in which he’s killed by a white NYPD officer — opened his speech by noting that police kill on average three people per day in the U.S.
“James Baldwin once said the most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other people’s pain,” he said. “And so I just ask that you please not be indifferent. Please, don’t be indifferent to our pain.”
Filmmaker Tyler Perry, accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, urged the audience to “refuse hate” while sharing a story of homeless woman he encountered 17 years ago.
“I’m about to give her money; she says, ‘Sir, do you have any shoes?’” Perry said. “It stopped me cold. I remember being homeless, and I had one pair of shoes.”
Some moments were less heavy-hearted. Unusually, previews for three feature films centered on the stories of people of color were given introductions seemingly from the telecast itself: DeBose for the first trailer for “West Side Story,” Lin-Manuel Miranda for a new trailer for “In the Heights” and Questlove for the first trailer for his feature documentary “Summer of Soul: Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised.”
Musicians Jon Batiste and H.E.R. enthusiastically accepted Oscars for original score and original song, respectively. Youn gently corrected the “European people” who constantly butcher her name before saying, “Tonight, all is forgiven.” And Howery corralled Kaluuya, best actress nominee Andra Day (“The People vs. Billie Holiday”) and a very game supporting actress nominee Glenn Close (“Hillbilly Elegy”) to play a loose Oscar trivia game meant to underscore that Prince’s “Purple Rain” and E.U.’s “Da Butt” were not nominated for best original song.
By the end of the night, the unprecedented decision to place the best actor and best actress categories after best picture appeared to backfire in spectacular fashion when not only did Boseman lose to Hopkins, but Hopkins was not available to accept the award. It was a decidedly sour final note in a highly unorthodox telecast.
If the producers were dead set on shaking up the presentation order, perhaps instead they could have moved best director to the end. Then the last word could have been Zhao’s, who said in her acceptance speech that since her childhood, she’s been guided by the phrase “人之初，性本善” — from the Chinese text “The Three Character Classic” — which translates to “people, at birth, are inherently good.”
“I still truly believe them today, even though sometimes it may seem like the opposite is true,” she said. “But I have always found goodness in the people I met — everywhere I went in the world.”