SAG Awards 2016: Take that, Oscars -- diversity's the big winner tonight

Members of the Screen Actors Guild proved far more inclusive than their film academy counterparts Saturday night, honoring a diverse array of actors during their annual awards show at the Shrine Auditorium — and making a pointed contrast to #OscarsSoWhite.

Most of the awards being accepted by people of color were for television performances with one prominent exception — Idris Elba, who won the supporting actor prize for his role in the Netflix film “Beasts of No Nation.”

Elba's failure to secure an Oscar nomination helped fuel this year's continued backlash against the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which for the second year in a row did not nominate any people of color for its 20 acting nominations.

FULL COVERAGE: Screen Actors Guild Awards

The SAG Awards are determined by the 116,741 SAG-AFTRA members. Balloting was open amid the Oscars diversity controversy, closing on Friday — just one day before the telecast.

Elba, who later in the evening won a second award for his turn as a self-destructive detective on BBC America's TV crime drama “Luther,” summed up the tone of the evening onstage with this play on words: “Welcome to diverse TV.”

The night also added a bit of intrigue to the Oscar race for best picture. The journalism drama “Spotlight” took the movie ensemble award, one week after Adam McKay's anarchic financial meltdown dramedy “The Big Short” won the top honor from the Producers Guild.

That suggests it's a two-way race at the Oscars Feb. 28, since the choices by these two guilds frequently point to the academy's ultimate winner.

Screen Actors Guild Awards: Live coverage | Best and worst dressed | Complete list | Full coverage | Red carpet

Leonardo DiCaprio won lead actor movie honors for his turn as bloodied, bear-battling trapper in “The Revenant.” Brie Larson took the lead actress award for the committed mother in “Room.” Both have been heavy favorites this awards season, collecting many prizes, including Golden Globes from the Hollywood Foreign Press Assn.

“I just feel deeply honored that I'm getting to represent a film that I think is an artistic epic, the kind of film that we don't see coming from the Hollywood studio system very often,” DiCaprio said. “And all this recognition means we're going to see more films like this, so there's a level of satisfaction.”

But the talk of the evening, onstage and behind the scenes, was the show's strong display of inclusiveness.

“Look at this stage,” “Orange Is the New Black” star Laura Prepon said, motioning to the show's diverse cast while accepting the TV comedy series award. “This is what we talk about when we talk about diversity. Different race, color, creed, sexual orientation.”

In addition to Elba, other winners included Queen Latifah for playing blues singer Bessie Smith in HBO's “Bessie,” Viola Davis for her lead turn on ABC's “How to Get Away With Murder” and “Orange Is the New Black” actress Uzo Aduba.

“And they won because their performances were effective,” Davis told The Times backstage. “They won because the actors have craft, they have a level of excellence that reaches people — and we're actors too. We're artists, too, we deserve to be a part of it and I think you saw that tonight.”

“You know what it feels like?” Aduba added. “It's amazing to see actors have the opportunity to celebrate other actors' work and to feel empowered by the voting process so they can see whatever actor they want reflected up there. And I'm honored to have been chosen by my peers."

From the outset, the show made a point of presenting the diversity of its membership and nominees. The ceremony opened with several actors — Rami Malek, Queen Latifah, Jeffrey Tambor, Anna Chlumsky, Kunal Nayyar — talking about what it means to be in their profession.

SAG Awards Committee Chair JoBeth Williams said the actor-focused awards show has “worked very hard to reflect the real world.” Williams noted its roster of presenters and nominees as proof of that.

“We try to represent a wide range of what the world looks like,” Williams said.

“This is what happens when you have the SAG group — a group of very diverse people who understand the work that we all put in and that we all deserve the same opportunities,” Queen Latifah told The Times backstage. “That's about it. I feel very positive about this day.”

One of the evening's most moving moments came when Tina Fey and Amy Poehler presented Carol Burnett with SAG's Life Achievement honor. Introducing the legendary comedian, whose classic variety series, “The Carol Burnett Show” ran on CBS from 1967 to '78, Fey and Poehler noted with humor how comedy is much more difficult than drama, mostly because you have to say everything faster — and often with a chimp.

“Carol is better than all of us, and we're giving her an award for it,” Poehler said.

Burnett received a lengthy, heartfelt standing ovation. Onstage she recalled her career, including the moment when a network executive told her that “comedy variety is a man's game.” Her stellar career served as a lengthy, emphatic rebuttal to that remark.

Also Saturday night, about 800 miles away, the Sundance Film Festival honored Nate Parker's slave-rebellion drama “The Birth of a Nation” with both the grand jury and audience prizes in the U.S. Dramatic competition, striking another blow for diversity in film.

The SAG Awards have proved over the years to be a reliable indicator of the outcomes of the Oscar acting races. In the last three years, all four of the SAG Awards acting winners have gone on to win the Oscar.

With Elba's snub at the Oscars, there will be at least one different winner this year.

glenn.whipp@latimes.com

@glennwhipp

ALSO:

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SAG Awards 2016: Queen of Comedy Carol Burnett receives the Life Achievement Award

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

9:22 p.m.: This post was updated with new details throughout.

This post was originally published at 7:07 p.m.

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