LOS ANGELES – In a break with tradition, the Academy of Arts and Sciences for Feature Films has decided to end its Academy Awards on Sunday with the Best Actor Award instead of the Best Picture Award.
It was easy to see why. The late Chadwick Boseman, nominated for his visceral performance on “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” was the runaway favorite, and an acceptance speech from his widow was sure to be an emotional moment. Furthermore, the best actor award had gone to a black only four times in 93 years, and Mr Boseman’s celebration at the height of the night – after a year when racial justice had been at the forefront of the country’s awareness – would be an exclamation point of the Academy’s aggressive efforts towards diversity and inclusion in recent years.
It backfired in a spectacular way.
The Film Institute instead went with Anthony Hopkins and rewarded his performance in “The Father” as a man with dementia. Apparently certain that Mr. Boseman would win, Mr. Hopkins had decided not to attend the ceremony. With no one to accept the award, the Oscars broadcast ended abruptly and the academy had to wonder if it had misjudged its electoral board.
“When I was 83, I didn’t expect to receive this award – I really didn’t,” said Hopkins in a video speech released Monday morning from his hometown in Wales in which he paid tribute to Mr Boseman.
The Academy of the Arts and Sciences for Feature Films, which on Monday refused to make officers available for interviews, has been trying to put their house in order for the past few years after being annoyed that they were both in 2015 also presented pure white boards of actor nominees in 2015. It has endeavored to implement reforms that focus on diversity and, above all, invited around 4,000 artists and executives – with a focus on women and people from underrepresented groups – to membership. The organization now has about 10,000 voters. It is said that about 19 percent of its members come from under-represented racial and ethnic communities, up from 10 percent in 2015.
This year’s ceremony had the chance to be a showcase for these efforts. On Sunday night, some award winners predicted film history would be made, with all four reigning Oscars going to people of color for the first time. Along with Mr. Boseman, Viola Davis was recognized as a lead candidate for the Best Actress Award for playing a blues singer in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” Best Actress instead went to Frances McDormand to play a grumpy van resident in Nomadland. It was her third best statuette.
The most diverse group of nominees in Oscar history, however, resulted in several notable victories for supporting roles: Daniel Kaluuya, who played the leader of the Black Panther, Fred Hampton, in “Judas and the Black Messiah,” and Yuh-Jung Youn, for hers comical fight grandmother in “Minari”. She was the first Korean actress to win an Acting Oscar and only the second Asian woman. The Chinese Chloé Zhao won the award for best director, only the second woman in Oscar history and the first woman of color.
Two black women, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson, won the Oscars for makeup and hairstyling for the first time. Emerald Fennell (“Promising Young Woman”) was the first woman in 13 years to take home a solo screenplay Oscar. And director Travon Free became the first black man to win in the best live action short film category. He won an award for Two Distant Strangers, a film about police brutality that he directed with Martin Desmond Roe.
“This is the blackest Oscar ever,” quipped Lil Rel Howery, who acted as MC for a music quiz game that took place towards the end of the show and in which Glenn Close danced to “Da Butt,” a song from the Spike soundtrack Lee’s “School Daze”.
Many agreed that the diversity of this year’s winners demonstrated that the film industry had become more inclusive. Others wonder if it’s just another anomaly in a strange year when most studios delayed the release of many of their bigger-budget films because cinemas across the country were closed and the films that were released tended to be smaller, were independent films that were largely seen on streaming services – if they were seen at all.
“Like everything else, the pandemic affected the way films were released, which ultimately affected the way people were nominated in films,” said Todd Boyd, professor of critical studies at the School of Cinematic Arts from the University of Southern California. “Until a few years go by, it will be difficult to know whether this year is actually representative of something or whether it is just a factor of the pandemic.”
Hollywood has been here before. In 2002, when Halle Berry won best actress for “Monster’s Ball”, best actor went to Denzel Washington (“Training Day”). It was the first time these awards were given to people of color that same year, prompting Mr. Washington to mention “Two Birds in One Night” on the Oscar stage.
April 26, 2021 at 12:32 AM ET
It seemed like a moment of progress. But no other black woman has won best actress since, and the last black man to win best actor was Forest Whitaker (“The Last King of Scotland”) in 2007. The academy was a little more inclusive in supporting categories. In the past 20 years, there have been four winners from Latino or Black Supporting Actors (none were Asian) and six winners from Black Supporting Actors (none were Asian or Latin American).
“There is so much to do, folks, and that is up to everyone in this room,” Kaluuya said during his acceptance speech. “This is not a one-man job. Each and every one of you has work to do. “
The Academy’s efforts to diversify its membership came after decades of relative stagnation. In 2008, only 105 people were invited to join.
As part of its 2016 overhaul pledges, the group greatly expanded the Oscar voting pool and invited 4,046 artists and executives to join over a five-year period, including 1,383 from overseas. Virtually everyone invited to attend the academy accepts, if not all. One of the most famous black directors in the business, Ryan Coogler (“Black Panther”) recently announced that he would not accept the Academy’s overtures.
Last year, the academy announced a plan that requires films to meet diversity criteria in order to qualify for a Best Picture nomination, starting with the 2024 awards.
Still, those who have criticized the way the film industry works are unwilling to praise the Academy’s efforts too much.
“What we constantly have to realize is that an institution like the academy has given nothing to black people,” said Rashad Robinson, president of the Color of Change organization for racial justice. “What the academy has done over the years is a system and set of rules that have blocked the careers of blacks, which has prevented people from being fully seen which has made an economic impact on people. Now that they are working on making some changes, we want to acknowledge those changes but not give them awards that they don’t deserve. “
The long process has affected the academy.
Factions formed within the secret organization, with some people insisting that the problem was not with the academy but with the film companies and the lack of opportunities they offer for people of color. That many of the academy members also worked for these companies was another point of contention.
One look at hostility came when Bill Mechanic, an Oscar-nominated producer and former studio manager, stepped down from the academy’s board of directors in 2018.
“We settled on numerical responses to the problem of inclusion and barely realized that this is the problem of the industry, far more so than the problem of the academy,” wrote Mechanic in his letter of resignation that was circulated to the news media. “Instead, we respond to pressure. One governor even went so far as to suggest that we do not admit a single white man to the academy, regardless of earnings! “
At the same time, some people have turned their backs on the Oscars because of the lack of diversity. Fewer than 10 million viewers tuned into the TV show on Sunday night, according to Nielson, a 58 percent decrease from the previous year. A member of the academy’s board of governors, who spoke on condition of anonymity based on confidentiality rules, said market research has shown people of color angered by the racial differences of the nominees (and tired of seeing many of the same people) being nominated over and over again ), was less interested in the ceremony. Some smaller civil rights groups have called for boycotts to be viewed.
Such was the case for April Reign, the campaign funding attorney who launched the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in 2015. Despite the changes in the organization, she believed the Academy’s efforts to diversify its electoral body had failed.
“It’s still a popularity contest among all white men,” she said.
Others see reason for optimism in this year’s Oscars, no matter how it ended.
“To have a film about Fred Hampton that doesn’t demonize him but celebrate him and deliver this fuller story to a group of black filmmakers is hard to believe, as you know, that it would be made a lot less nominations,” Boyd said about “Judas and the Black Messiah”. “And we could go over any of these examples. It is great. It is wonderful. I just don’t want it to be an isolated incident. “