Zero actors of color were nominated at this year’s Academy Awards. Or maybe you hadn’t heard?
The Oscars existed in a strange space on Sunday night, like a macro version of Ex Machina: How can you tell when an awards show becomes fully sentient? And, should self-awareness be achieved, what, exactly, is supposed to happen next?
This is the thought experiment that played out as Chris Rock hosted the 2016 ceremonies. He had promised not to shy away from the headline of the night — in the past few years in particular, he’s provided some of the most searing and straightforward commentary about race and Hollywood out of anyone in the industry — and, in his way, he delivered. Almost the entirety of his monologue was devoted to “The White People’s Choice Awards.” He took a dig at noted no-show Jada Pinkett Smith, who announced she would not be attending only after her husband, Will, did not receive a nomination for Concussion: “Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties. I wasn’t invited.”
Rock played around with his answer to the question, “Is Hollywood racist?” (Hollywood, he concluded, is “sorority racist”: “It’s like, we like you, Rhonda. But you’re not a Kappa.”) Rock celebrated a movie that, save for Sylvester Stallone’s nod for Best Supporting Actor, went uncelebrated by the Academy, Creed. Or, as Rock called it, “Black Rocky.” “Rocky takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes,” he said. “Rocky’s a science fiction movie.” But his strongest riff was a rumination on why it took so long for this type of protest to explode, considering the all-white acting slates of decades past. In the 1960s, he said, “We had real things to protest! Too busy being raped and lynched to care about who won best cinematographer. You know, when your grandmother is swinging from the tree, it’s really hard to care about best documentary foreign short.”
CREDIT: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
The fundamental weakness in Rock’s monologue — and in his work throughout the night — was its narrow focus. In making a point about that exclusion, he did some excluding of his own: Rock failed to mention the fact that not only were no black actors honored this year, but no actors of color, period, were honored. The stats for black actors at the Oscars are abysmal, but the numbers for Asian and Latino actors are even worse. As the Los Angeles Times reported last month, “No Asian actress has won an Oscar in 58 years, and it’s been 54 years since a Latina took home an Academy Award.”
A pre-taped segment that ran later in the show (but only in the first quarter, so to speak, when at least a dozen awards had yet to be distributed) showed black actors digitally-inserted in this year’s nominated movies. The highlight, easily, was Tracy Jordan slipping into Eddie Redmayne’s dress in The Danish Girl. Stacey Dash, formerly best known as Dionne from Clueless but reimagined for our modern, Donald-Trump-might-actually-win-the-election times as a conservative commentator who recently declared she thinks America should get rid of Black History Month, made a very awkward cameo as the Academy’s “new director of minority outreach.” Her appearance barely made sense to viewers who knew the backstory, let alone the overwhelming majority who had to Google her to figure out why they recognized her at all.
Better insight came from Kerry Washington, a new member of the Academy, who explained her decision to attend the show during a red carpet interview with ABC’s Robin Roberts: “If you look at the history of movements, the history of change, a lot of voices are needed at the table… For me, I felt like my voice, in my heart, my voice is best used at the table. As a new member of the Academy, I want to make sure there’s institutional change so that we never have a year like this again, so that we can be as inclusive as possible.”
Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs made a speech, doubling down on what she’s said on the matter before: “Inclusion only serves to make us all stronger, and it’s important that the members of the Academy and everyone in this room help deliver that message… It’s not enough to just listen and agree. We must take action.”
Though there was less pre-show buzz about it, the night offered some empowering, even transcendent, victories for victims of sexual violence. Spotlight won Best Original Screenplay and the biggest prize of the night, Best Picture, a triumph both for the survivors of clerical sexual abuse and the investigative reporting that exposed that abuse to the world.
Mad Max: Fury Road, a film that sees the five wives of Immortan Joe — sexual prisoners selected for breeding — flee from their tormentor with the help of a rogue female lieutenant, won a stunning six awards. Brie Larson won Best Actress for her performance in Room, in which she plays a mother and rape survivor who escapes from the man who kidnapped her.
CREDIT: Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Vice President Joe Biden introduced Lady Gaga, who performed “Til It Happens to You,” a nominee for Best Original Song. “Til It Happens to You” is the theme of The Hunting Ground, a documentary about sexual assault on college campuses, and Biden — who helped draft the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 — gave an impassioned speech imploring viewers to “take a pledge that says: I will will intervene in situations when consent has not or cannot be given. Let’s change the culture. We must and we can change the culture so that no abused woman or man, like the survivors you will see tonight, ever feel they have to ask themselves, ‘What did I do?’ They did nothing wrong.”
Lady Gaga sang in her usual fashion, with every emotion cranked up to eleven. But the real power in her performance came from the phalanx of rape survivors flanking her on either side.
CREDIT: Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP
The Oscar for Best Documentary Short was given to Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy for her film, A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, which exposes the horror of honor killings in Pakistan through the surreal experience of someone who survived one. Saba Qaiser fell in love and married her boyfriend against her family’s wishes. Just hours after her wedding, her father and uncle beat her, shot her in the head, stuffed her in a sack, and threw her in the river. Qaiser lived — the bullet missed her brain — and Obaid Chinoy met her while she was in a hospital, recovering. There are at least 1,000 so-called “honor killings” in Pakistan each year. Obaid Chinoy began her acceptance speech by saying, “This is what happens when determined women get together,” citing all the women who participated in and supported her film, as well as “the men who champion women… who push women to go to school and work and who want a more just society for women.”
After The Girl in the River received its Oscar nomination, Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif offered Obaid Chinoy his congratulations and said he would battle “to rid Pakistan of this evil by bringing in appropriate legislation.”
As the morning after an overlong ceremony is bound to bring with it the who-cares commentary — who cares about the Oscars, who cares which rich people win which awards, who cares what really went down between Leo and that bear from The Revenant — the recognition of Obaid Chinoy, both by the Academy and by Sharif, is a kind of proof of concept. Awards are frivolous, except for when they aren’t; the Oscars are out-of-touch and irrelevant, except for when they’re not. There is still, after all this time and all this disappointment, a reason to be invested in what work the Academy honors. All the more reason to keep demanding the Academy do better.