History is always made on the night of the Academy Awards – the ceremony honouring the most outstanding achievements in cinema over a calendar year – but the 91st gathering of the film industry’s best and brightest was already a significant one, due to some tumultuous stuff-ups that threatened to overshadow the event. But it is the bestowing of the major prize that will have people talking in the years to come, and not positively.
Before getting into that though, here’s a brief summary of what happened before the ceremony took place. First, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – the body that oversees the Awards – announced in August 2018 that a “Best Popular Film” category would be instated, which commentators claimed would undermine both the recipient of the Oscar (for being too mainstream to be recognised properly) and the winner of Best Picture (which would be deemed “unpopular” or pretentious). Consequently, the Academy walked back on those plans within a week of them being announced.
Next, in December, the Academy revealed that comedian Kevin Hart would host the telecast of the 91st Awards, which was viewed as a safe way of marketing the ceremony to a broader audience and increasing the television ratings over the previous broadcasts of the Oscars. Mere hours after that announcement, a series of years-old, homophobic jokes told by Hart resurfaced, drawing widespread condemnation and forcing the Academy to demand an apology from Hart, who refused to do so.
Having failed to say “Sorry”, Hart was removed from hosting duties and the Academy boldly, bravely opted not to have a presenter to anchor its telecast. But the controversy did not end there, because it was just a fortnight ago that the Academy announced that four categories – including Editing and Cinematography – would be announced during commercial breaks to shorten the length of the telecast. Yet again, the industry expressed its unadulterated outrage, and the Academy rescinded its decision within days of the announcement.
So, having upset just about everybody, sympathy for the Academy was in short supply once the telecast commenced, but the mood was very quickly alleviated by British rock group Queen – the focus of the biographical musical Bohemian Rhapsody – who entertained everybody with renditions of their hits “We Will Rock You” and “We Are the Champions”. Brain May proved that he was still a proficient guitarist at the age of 71, but vocalist Adam Lambert paled in comparison to both Freddie Mercury and Rami Malek, the eventual winner of Best Actor for his performance as the late musician.
In place of an opening monologue by the ceremony’s host, viewers were introduced to Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, whose one-liners and banter proved a worthy substitute. They then proceeded to present the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress to Regina King, who gave a tearful, yet collected, acceptance speech that moved many in the audience. She wasn’t the only African-American to be honoured, with Mahershala Ali also claiming victory later in the Best Supporting Actor category for his performance as Dr Don Shirley in Green Book.
Rudolph, Fey and Poehler’s routine would be their only appearance on the Dolby Theatre stage, as they made way for numerous celebrities presenting Oscars in the other categories. Some of this author’s favourites include Melissa McCarthy and Brian Tyree Henry, who wore the most extravagant garments to bestow the prize for Best Production Design; and Awkwafina and John Mulaney, whose high-energy dynamic presenting the Short Film and Documentary Short Subject Oscars was exactly the kind of liveliness the telecast desperately needed.
As always, the Academy made strides in diversity and inclusion with their awarding of certain films. Black Panther – a blockbuster about an African superhero – won three Oscars for Costume Design, Production Design and Original Score, a record haul for a superhero film; Mexican film Roma garnered three awards, in the Foreign-Language, Cinematography and Direction categories; and Period. End of Sentence, a documentary that examines women’s inability to access sanitation products in third-world countries, also earned a statuette. As Reya Zehtabchi stated:
I can’t believe a film about menstruation just won an Oscar!
Another win for progression came during the Best Animated Short Film section, which saw Pixar’s Bao – a film directed by an Asian-American woman, with an Asian-American woman as the central character – emerge victorious. In accepting her Oscar, Domee Shi gave the most gracious, composed and straightforward speech of the night, which is something of a habit for Disney employees, to the point where this author is left to believe that the company teaches their employees how to accept awards.
The were many more deserved winners during the 91st ceremony, including Lady Gaga for her haunting song “Shallow” from A Star Is Born; the under-appreciated First Man, which took home the prize for Best Visual Effects, beating audience favourite Avengers: Infinity War; auteur Spike Lee, who ecstatically took to the stage to collect his Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay, his first accolade in a competitive category; and the biggest surprise of the night, Olivia Colman, who herself was shocked at being crowned Best Lead Actress in a field of extraordinary performances. (She gave a great speech, too.)
One of the more contentious victors during the evening was Green Book, a film about race-relations that is directed by a white man, written by three white men and which credits a white man as its lead. There was a hint of disdain evident in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice when he read the film’s name as the recipient of the Best Original Screenplay award, but when Julia Roberts announced it as Best Picture, there was clear unhappiness with the result – according to Variety, Jordan Peele declined to clap, and Spike Lee attempted to walk out of the theatre.
It’s a result that does not sit well with this author, either. 2018 was a year in which African-Americans made their voice heard loudly in the medium of film with nuanced, meaningful discussions about prejudice and inequality, such as Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You and Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk – a review of which will be posted tomorrow. Two other examples, BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther, were also nominated in the Best Picture category, but obviously their conflicts and ideals didn’t resonate with the old, white men who make up the majority of the Academy.
When the Academy announced cinematographer John Bailey as its new President last August, succeeding Cheryl Boone Isaacs – an African-American woman – many people saw the decision as a step backward for the film industry; with the “shock” victory of Green Book as Best Picture, the Academy has taken another retrograde step that undermines and disvalues the contributions that Lee, Jenkins, Ryan Coogler et al have made to cinema. It’s also quite a condescending move, for it suggests that white people – who are rarely the victims of racism, if ever – have a better understanding of racial inequality than anybody else.
The purpose of the Academy Awards is to acknowledge the films that subvert, challenge or redefine the norms of the medium. BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther both do this by asking viewers whether they can identify with a cause that uses violence and fear to galvanise one’s people, and demonstrating how those tactics are being utilised in contemporary society; Green Book does not do this, instead offering a more simplistic, pandering, patronising message that racism can be overcome if we all just get along with each other, a moral that has been communicated in countless films.
People will be shaking their heads at the 91st Academy Awards long into the future, for more reasons than one, but there are just as many moments that ought to be celebrated, like how the telecast proves just as enjoyable without a Master of Ceremonies, or the notable firsts achieved by some outstanding films, or the fact that Olivia Colman is now an Oscar winner. Every cloud has a silver lining, as they say. Or several, in this case.
EDIT: I neglected to mention Into the Spider-Verse‘s win, another victory that ought to be celebrated. Well done, team!