Four years after #OscarsSoWhite was hashtag-born, the Oscars ceremony saw a record rendering of diversity: In addition to seven black artists receiving awards in multiple categories, Asian filmmakers won best documentary and best animated short, Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuaron won for best director, best cinematography and best foreign language film — and a group of young female filmmakers won best documentary short for a film about the stigma associated with menstruation. That’s a welcome sea change for a motion picture academy so hidebound four years ago that it nominated not a single person of color in any of the four acting categories. Since then, the academy has swelled its ranks with hundreds of new voting members who are women and people of color.
The increase in diversity, however, didn’t prevent Oscar voters from making some controversial choices about films centered on people of color. Most of the friction was over the awards (notably, the Oscars for best picture and best original screenplay) going to “Green Book,” a film about a racist white man who takes a job chauffeuring a gifted black concert pianist around the segregated South. To the film’s critics, and there are many, the awards for “Green Book” showed that Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences voters still fall for the old “white savior” tropes and films that resolve deep-seated conflicts with feel-good Hollywood endings by the time the final credits roll.
The ire generated by those statuettes wasn’t abated by the presence of Octavia Spencer among the movie’s mostly white male producers, or by actor Mahershala Ali, who played the pianist, winning for best supporting actor. Nor did the Oscar that Spike Lee collected for adapted screenplay (along with a team of co-writers) for “BlacKkKlansman” quell discontent on Twitter.
In the end, this competition should be about the best performance and the best work. And it is inevitable that more talented people will lose on Oscar night than win. The goal is to keep expanding the diversity in the membership and in the film business itself so that a wider vast array of stories is told on film and championed by the academy. Judging from the nominees and winners, the industry is going in the right direction. The real achievement will come when a movie is passed over, and no one assumes it’s because of racism or sexism.
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