Three years after the launch of #OscarsSoWhite, the 2019 Academy Awards simultaneously gave us inspirational new firsts in representation and reminded us how bad the diversity picture in the film industry still looks. Yes, the instant-fossil Green Book won Best Picture, putting an abrupt dampener on the ceremony. But this year’s Oscars also gave us winners like costume designer Ruth E. Carter and production designer Hannah Beachler, both for Black Panther, making them the first black victors in each category. Combined with Regina King’s trophy for her supporting performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, Mahershala Ali’s best supporting win for Green Book, Spike Lee’s award for BlacKkKlansman’s script, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse co-director Peter Ramsey for Best Animated Feature, it was a great night for recognizing black talent and black projects. (And Green Book.)
But the racial progress at the 2019 Oscars felt slightly different from previous years’. This time, the academy’s idea of inclusion finally seemed to go beyond the black-white binary that tends to dominate racial discussions in American culture. In addition to the many presenters of color, racial representation at the awards ceremony included multiple Oscar-winner Roma, a film that is not only centered on Latino and Latina characters of both European and indigenous heritages but also showcases the complexity of Mexican history and society. It might have been nice to see more Latino winners than Roma writer-director-cinematographer Alfonso Cuarón—and more homegrown Latino talent alongside international luminaries. But it’s hard to overstate the meaningfulness of these triumphs for a foreign-language film set and shot in the country that’s the subject of our president’s border-wall obsession.
Also onstage were a quartet of Asian winners: Bao director Domee Shi, who won for Best Animated Short; Period. End of Sentence. helmer Rayka Zehtabchi, for Best Live-Action Short; and Free Solo filmmakers Jimmy Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, for Best Documentary Feature. And during his turn at the mic, Bohemian Rhapsody’s Best Actor winner Rami Malek movingly thanked his Egyptian immigrant parents. In short, the actual diversity of America was on display Sunday night. It was also heartwarming that so many of the winners of color—like the people behind Roma, BlacKkKlansman, If Beale Street Could Talk, Bao, and Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse—won for telling resonant stories about their own cultures, histories, and peoples.
It’s important to remember that Oscar-nominated and -winning films capture just a sliver of the film industry’s output. The awards for the winners of color Sunday night are likely the result of changes in the industry at large as much as the influx of new members to the academy. The greater inclusion is surely due in part to many more creatives of color getting opportunities to tell the stories that they believe in. Yes, dreck like Green Book somehow still gets lauded. In fact, when it comes to diversity and representation, this might be the perfect Oscars for our times—a hundred signs of progress that end in a giant step backward. But when Hollywood isn’t pissing on itself on a world stage like Jackson Maine, it’s provided us with plenty of smaller reasons for optimism, too.
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