"Spotlight" was the big winner at the Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday, as Hollywood's debate over diversity also took center stage.
Tom McCarthy'sa tale of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal and the newspaper investigation that uncovered it scored best feature, director, screenplay and editing prizes at the annual indie-movie ceremony in Santa Monica, as well as the previously announced ensemble-oriented Robert Altman Award.
"It is very rare to make a film that has impacted the world as significantly as this one has," said "Spotlight" producer Michael Sugar upon accepting the feature prize. "By honoring it," he added, "more lives can be spared from abuse."
Co-screenwriter Josh Singer, accepting the writing prize with McCarthy, paid tribute to abuse survivor Phil Saviano, who was given a huge standing ovation. Many of the real-life Boston Globe journalists portrayed in the film also were at the show and took the stage for the final prize.
But it was the issue of diversity that was often on the minds of Spirit attendees. Presenters and hosts made a number of comments related to racial and sexual diversity, and "Beasts of No Nation" stars Abraham Attah and Idris Elba won the two male acting prizes.
"Maybe it's not the old classic Hollywood, but it is damn straight the Hollywood of today," said black trans star Mya Taylor of her L.A.-set film "Tangerine," a streetwise buddy dramedy, as she presented a clip.
Later, Taylor won the prize for supporting female and exhorted filmmakers in the room to think more broadly in making their casting decisions.
"There's very beautiful trans talent. You got to get out there and put it in your next movie," she said.
Meanwhile, Elba, whose Academy Awards snub helped renew momentum for the #OscarsSoWhite movement, took the Spirit prize for supporting male, while Attah notched the win for male lead. The awards offered a validation of sorts for the movie, released by Netflix, and provided a sharp rebuff to the Oscars for overlooking films with black casts.
Attah, a Ghanaian teenager who had never acted in a film before, gave an endearing speech in which he earnestly thanked a list of people, including his agent and costume designer; he generated the warmest response of the day.
Elba did not reference #OscarsSoWhite in his acceptance speech -- he instead paid deference to Netflix and Attah. But others were less demure.
Spirit Awards co-host Kate McKinnon began the show by saying: "We're going to cuss. We're going to flash some nip. We're going to nominate some people who aren't white."
Her fellow host Kumail Nanjiani added that the Spirit Awards were "more diverse than the brochure of a liberal-arts college."
Film Independent president Josh Welsh hailed the awards for "talent on-screen and talent on-camera look[ing] somewhat like the world we actually live in."
And Nate Parker, the director behind the Sundance race-themed phenom "Birth of a Nation," presented the award for first feature, garnering an enthusiastic response from the room. "Birth" is expected to contend in a number of Spirit categories next year.
The Spirits are one of the preeminent independent-film awards ceremonies, honoring movies made for approximately $20 million or fewer. In recent years, winners have prefigured the Oscars, especially for best feature, which last year went to eventual Oscar winner "Birdman." Though there is very little overlap between the Spirits and Oscars voting bodies, three of the past four best feature winners in Santa Monica on Saturday went on to take best picture at the Dolby on Sunday.
"Spotlight" is perceived to be in a heated battle with two other films, "The Revenant" and "The Big Short," for Oscar best picture; neither of those movies were eligible for Spirits.
In keeping with the show's history, a loose vibe permeated the room. The ceremony included a series of parodies from McKinnon and Manjiani of "Room" and "Carol," and an extended conceptual bit in which McKinnon played a slovenly "Anomalisa" Kickstarter funder who just came to the show to kiss Paul Dano. (He played along, and then some.)
The day was also filled with a trademark Spirits mix of self-deprecating humor about indie film and sincere calls-to-action against Big Hollywood homogeneity.
"We need companies like this right now that will step up when other studios won't tell stories like this," McCarthy said of "Spotlight" distributor Open Road Film as he accepted the Altman prize.
Other winners Saturday included "Room" scribe Emma Donoghue for first screenplay; Marielle Heller's "The Diary of a Teenage Girl" for first feature; Joshua Oppenheimer's Indonesian massacre examination "The Look of Silence" for documentary; "Room" star Brie Larson for lead female; and Laszlo Nemes' formally ambitious Holocaust movie "Son of Saul" for international film.
Nemes took a moment in accepting his prize to outline a forward-looking vision for independent cinema.
"The language of film, the grammar of film, is not something that's stopped evolving," the director said. "We want to explore."
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