Change is hard. It never happens quite like you want it to and most of the time it is very, very messy.
This year’s Oscars reflected an institution in the midst of great change.
Three years after #Oscarssowhite, the largest and most diverse academy membership in history made history with first-time wins for black female filmmakers and a record number of awards for black filmmakers. They gave an Oscar to the female creators of a short film about menstruation, the first Pixar film directed solely by a woman and Spike Lee. Alfonso Cuarón won three awards for “Roma,” which is a black-and-white film entirely in Spanish that is distributed by Netflix.
The nearly 8,000 voters also continued to baffle and irritate critics with their stubbornly retro fondness for “Bohemian Rhapsody” and their choice of the old-fashioned “Green Book” for best picture over “Black Panther,” “Roma” and “BlacKkKlansman.”
All of which occurred in a telecast that came as close to the three-hour mark as it’s probably ever going to get if we are going to continue to let people sing and honor the dead. Even the set looked way better on television than it did in photos.
All of which is kind of a miracle.
Never has an Oscar telecast been preceded by so much fretting, fuming, Twitter-lashing, letter-writing and general hand-wringing. A popular Oscar? No way! Kevin Hart as host? Uh-uh! No host? That won’t work either. Hand out awards in four categories during the commercials? We have a petition! A three-hour telecast? Impossible! You say Queen is opening the show? That’s crazy. And that set? It looks like Donald Trump’s hair.
Seriously, for an event that usually spends its final weeks wondering what to wear, it was intense.
But Queen was fine, if a little redolent of all those beer-soaked floors from which sweaty teenagers of at least four generations have sung “We Are the Champions.” Instead of a host making jokes about how long the show is and how big the ratings dip will be, there was a far more optimistic “all hands on deck” energy that bounced the action between awards and performance.
Any show that manages to get Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Barbra Streisand, Serena Williams and Melissa McCarthy with a rabbit hand puppet on stage is doing something right.
In fact, for all the last-minute angst producers Donna Gigliotti and Glenn Weiss endured, the show felt pretty polished — the presenters were prepared, and announced the correct winners. There were so many inclusive and inspired pairings — Helen Mirren and Jason Momoa (and his scrunchy), McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry in an equally outlandish costume — that when Mike Myers and Dana Carvey came out to introduce, of course, “Bohemian Rhapsody,” the sight of two white men seemed a bit strange.
Especially after the first 40 minutes of the show in which Regina King’s supporting actress win, for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” was followed by Ruth E. Carter winning for costume design and Hannah Beachler for production design, both for “Black Panther.” Carter and Beachler were the first African Americans ever to win in their categories.
And while women remained shut out of the directing and cinematography categories this year, as in most years, the directors and producers of “Period. End of Sentence.”, which won short documentary, and “Bao,” which won animated short, were women, as was the producer of the the live-action short winner “Skin.”
Nowhere was the tension between the old and the new as obvious as during the writing awards. Many saw “Green Book,” a fairly standard odd-couple tale in which a white man drives a black musician on a tour of the South and both learn something, as an antithesis to the more modern “BlacKkKlansman,” in which a black cop and a white cop infiltrate the Klan and both learn something.
So when “Green Book” won for best original screenplay, social media lit up with disgust only to settle down minutes later when “BlacKkKlansman” won for adapted screenplay.
In the end “Green Book,” a story of racism told largely from the perspective of a white man prevailed, beating not only a glorious kingdom of black warriors and superheroes and the story of a black man infiltrating the Klan, but also stories of a love triangle between a queen and her female consorts, the quiet but dramatic life of a Mexican housekeeper, and a rising female star.
But it beat “Bohemian Rhapsody” too, and that’s something.
Change is hard: It takes time, it makes a lot of people mad, and it takes a lot of work. The Academy and its leadership have taken a lot of flak for a lot of things, some of it justified — seriously, you have to stop dropping bombshells via random press releases as if you had never met your membership.
Still, this year’s nominees and winners represent a very different and more wide-ranging worldview than we’ve seen in previous years. And if the evening ended, as so many of these evenings have, with a bunch of white guys thanking the academy, well, it opened with Regina King. And that’s always a good sign.