Oscars bring surprising sincerity – if not diversity – to Sunday's ceremony

On a night when critics were prepared to blast the Oscars for its lack of diversity, the 87th Academy Awards managed to do a surprisingly effective job of defusing detractors.

Matt Sayles/Invision/AP
Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu appears backstage with his award for best director for 'Birdman' at the Oscars on Sunday at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.

On a night when critics were prepared to blast the Oscars for its lack of diversity, the 87th Academy Awards managed to do a surprisingly effective job of defusing detractors – both by the pointed humor of its host, Neil Patrick Harris, as well as by the number of prominent awards that were awarded to international talents.

There were no appearances by Satcheen Littlefeather, but social commentary dominated in the acceptance speeches in a way it hasn’t in recent years. From Best Supporting Actress Patricia Arquette’s call for equal pay for women to discussions of LGBT identity, national security, and the rate of suicide among veterans, issues of social justice received almost as much air time as the eternally vapid question, “Who are you wearing?”

“The ceremony managed to genuflect toward social issues … when the bets were that it wouldn’t, given the under-recognition of ‘Selma,’ ” says Christopher Sharrett, a film professor at Seton Hall University.

And, going in to Sunday night, the Oscars had more than a bit to prove: For only the second time since 1998, the 20 acting nominee slots were filled entirely by white performers, leading to the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, as well as plans for a protest, which was canceled at the request of “Selma” director Ava DuVernay, whom critics said should have earned a nomination for her civil rights film. According to a study by the Los Angeles Times, the 6,000-member Academy is 94 percent white and 77 percent male, with an average age of 62. 

Mr. Harris acknowledged the lack of diversity in his opening comments. “Tonight we celebrate Hollywood’s best and whitest, sorry… brightest.”

Later, after engaging David Oyelowo, lead actor in “Selma,” on the audience floor, Harris said to the audience’s applause, “Oh sure, now you like him.”

The 87th Academy Awards also were notable for being a year in which every film nominated for best picture received at least one award. No one film really dominated, and smaller, more personal visions from the margins seem on the ascendancy over blockbusters – with the exception of “American Sniper,” which earned more than $300 million at the box office.

The night’s most emotional moment was the awarding of best original song for “Glory” from “Selma” – sung just moments before by John Legend and rapper Common.

“I really thought the standing ovation given to ‘Glory’ was the academy acknowledging that it was in error for not nominating [actor] David Oyelowo, or [director] Ava DuVernay for ‘Selma,’ ” said Charles Bernstein, one of three music governors for the academy. The camera focused in on several attendees with tears streaming down their faces after the performance, among them Mr. Oyelowo and Chris Pine.

“Once a landmark of a divided nation, the spirit of this bridge is now for all people regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation or social status. This bridge was built on hope and welded with compassion,” said Mr. Legend in his acceptance speech. “We wrote this film for events that happened 50 years ago but we say that Selma is now. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men incarcerated today than were in slavery in 1850.” 

“People were allowed to speak their minds on any number of controversial topics from the stage,” says Wheeler Winston Dixon, immediate past editor of the Quarterly Review of Film and Video at the University of Nebraska in Lincoln. “Some people went on and on forever, and got played off at the start of the ceremonies, but when someone had a real message to deliver, I noticed that the orchestra held back on a number of occasions.”

“Birdman” won five Oscars – including best picture, best director, and best original screenplay for director Alejandro González Iñárritu – but overall, the awards were spread around. It was the first time a Latino director's film has won best picture, and the second year in a row that the best director hailed from Mexico, after Alfonso Cuaron’s win for "Gravity" the year prior.

Of the 18 years during which the Academy has had more than five nominees in the category (1931 through 1943, and 2009 to now), this is the first time every nominated film has won an award.

While critics were divided on Harris's overall performance, which included an appearance clad only in underwear and socks, one expert says the first-time host took at least one issue where it needed to go.

“It was clearly smart to make a few jokes about the lack of recognition of 'Selma' and its artists, but in the face of John Legend and Common's wonderful rendition of 'Glory' (and the powerful reaction in the auditorium), the snub was perhaps made more acute,” says Derek Burrill, professor of media and cultural studies at University of California, Riverside.  “And deservedly so, what with the tumultuous year that saw "I Can't Breathe' and 'Hands Up.' It was an important year for black rights, and an important year for a film like 'Selma.' ”

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