The best picture mix-up made headlines, but the Oscar winners made history

Viola Davis and her Oscar for best supporting actress.
(Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times)

At Sunday night’s Academy Awards, a last-minute fumble overshadowed a much larger, and more significant, event.

While everyone scrambled to absorb, and then deconstruct, the mistaken announcement of “La La Land” as best picture when “Moonlight” had actually won, a thousand conversations about errant envelopes threatened to take the spotlight off the historic nature of the night’s winners.

After two years of blistering criticism over back-to-back slates of all-white nominees, the motion picture academy spent the better part of last year attempting to broaden its membership and its sense of what it stood for as the public face of the movie business. Stung by last year’s #OscarsSoWhite furor, the group headed into the 89th Academy Awards hoping to turn the page on the diversity debate — and perhaps find a moment of redemption.


And the best picture debacle notwithstanding, that’s just what it did.

This year, the academy rewarded more African American actors and filmmakers in more categories than it ever had in a single year.

Just 12 months after host Chris Rock scathingly branded the 2016 Academy Awards “the White People’s Choice Awards,” Sunday’s Oscars offered a dramatically different picture of the state of inclusion in the film industry.

Capped by the stunning upset best picture win for the drama “Moonlight” — the story of a gay African American boy growing up in poverty in Miami — the evening saw a record-breaking number of awards go to black actors and filmmakers, including “Fences” star Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali of “Moonlight,” who took home supporting actress and supporting actor honors.

Accepting the adapted screenplay prize alongside Tarell Alvin McCraney, director Barry Jenkins gave a nod to those who long have felt underrepresented by Hollywood. “All you people out there who feel like there’s no mirror for you, that your life is not reflected … we have your back,” Jenkins said.

The diversity of Sunday night’s winners — which also saw Ali become the first Muslim actor ever to win an Oscar — were seen by many as a sign that, as academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs told the crowd at the Dolby Theatre, the film industry is “becoming more inclusive and diverse with each passing day.”

“This demonstrates how far the academy has come,” National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People President and Chief Executive Cornell William Brooks said in a statement. “The NAACP is happy that this year’s Academy Awards has taken a step forward in recognizing the work that people of color bring to this industry as a whole.”


The question, of course, is whether that step forward will represent lasting change or be followed by a return to business as usual in an industry in which entrenched inequities in hiring persist.

“I was elated because what I thought was the best film actually won,” said writer and activist April Reign, who created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag in 2015. “I’m also incredibly encouraged about what happened in the lesser-known categories: adapted screenplay and best documentary and the nominations that we had of black people in cinematography and editing.

“All that said, it’s just one night out of 90 nights of lack of representation of marginalized communities,” she continued. “#OscarsSoWhite remains relevant because there are still so many stories from traditionally underrepresented communities that need to be told.”

In the wake of last year’s #OscarsSoWhite furor, the academy took dramatic steps aimed at diversifying its overwhelmingly white and male ranks, inviting the largest, most diverse class ever to join the institution. But whether those measures were directly responsible for this year’s results is impossible to know.

Todd Boyd, professor of cinema and media studies at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, is wary of reading too much into one year’s Oscar results.

“There are people who are like, ‘Look! Hollywood is cured!’ ” Boyd said. “But as we know, using that metaphor, the disease has the possibility of coming back anytime unless it’s totally eradicated, and we’re nowhere close to it being totally eradicated.


The academy, he added, “made an effort to become more diverse but the ranks of studio executives and the people who call the shots in Hollywood — that hasn’t changed. The power structure hasn’t changed.”

Though she played a key role in sparking the diversity debate, Reign said the diversity reflected in this year’s Academy Awards can’t be chalked up to the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag — nor should it be.

“I already have people [on Twitter] saying ‘Moonlight’ only won because of affirmative action,” she said. “That’s unfortunate, because I think it really downplays all of the effort and hard work and talent that goes into all of these performances.

“Nobody questioned whether Emma Stone should win an Oscar or whether Meryl Streep should win an Oscar,” she added. “But people always question whether a person of color should, and that’s just unfair. Viola Davis deserves every award ever, in every category.”

For her part, in one of the evening’s most moving acceptance speeches, Davis made clear what her first Oscar win meant for her as someone who, as a girl, had started to hone her acting skills in tea party games with her sister, pretending “we were rich white women.”

“People ask me all the time, what kind of stories do you want to tell, Viola?” Davis told the crowd. “The stories of people who dreamed big and never saw those dreams to fruition. People who fell in love and lost. I became an artist — and thank God I did — because we are the only profession that celebrates what it means to live a life.”


Twitter: @joshrottenberg