Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani aren’t not famous. McKinnon is the current showcase star of Saturday Night Live, with a looming next-big-Wiig movie career. Nanjiani is an ascendant comedy-nerd hero with a lead role on Silicon Valley. Still, the two actors started off their gig hosting the 2016 Film Independent Spirit Awards with abashed self-deprecation. Most awards shows get bigtime celebrity hosts. “You wound up with us,” said Nanjiani. “A gay woman and a Pakistani man. Or as Hollywood thinks of us: a straight woman and her IT guy.”
A funny line – and representative of the larger narratives that have emerged during this awards season, as the mostly-white Oscar nominations brought to the fore Hollywood’s diversity problem. The Spirit Awards took place the day before the Academy Awards. Nanjiani had another stinger, explaining how the Spirit Award nominees “are as diverse as the cover of a brochure for a liberal arts college, while the Oscar nominees are as diverse as the student body at a liberal arts college.” And McKinnon started the show off by drawing a line in the sand, explaining how the Spirits were different: “We’re going to cuss. We’re going to flash some nip. We’re going to nominate some people who aren’t white.”
Beyond that, there wasn’t much explicit Oscar talk. But the Spirit Awards nevertheless comprised a quiet political statement in a year full of conversations about cinematic representation. When Emma Donoghue won Best First Screenplay for her adaptation of her own novel Room, she thanked her (female) partner of many years. The lesbian drama Carol – seen by many as one of the Oscar’s biggest Best Picture snubs – won an award for Best Cinematography, and was the subject of a lengthy parody sketch featuring McKinnon and Nanjiani.
The first award of the televised presentation, Best Supporting Male, went to Idris Elba, who brought his Beasts of No Nation co-star Abraham Attah onstage. Attah returned to the stage later in the evening to accept a Best Male Lead prize. The Best Supporting Female award went to Mya Taylor, for Tangerine. Elba, Attah, and Taylor are all black; Taylor is the first transgender actress to ever win at the Spirit Awards.
Taylor had the speech of the night, recalling how Tangerine director Sean Baker had approached her about the ultra low-budget film on an iPhone. And she ended her speech with a message for the filmmakers in the audience: “There is transgender talent. There’s very beautiful transgender talent. So, you better get it out there and put it in your next movie.”
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It’s maybe wrong to compare the Spirit Awards too directly with the Oscars. The Spirits specifically focus on independent cinema, while the Academy Awards are a creation of the Hollywood studio system. (Also, Bone Tomahawk had two Spirit nominations, and the Oscars would never nominate Bone Tomahawk for anything.) And the 2016 Spirits didn’t completely part ways with the Academy, giving a lot of love to Oscar favorite Spotlight, which won Best Feature, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Editing, and the honorary Robert Altman ensemble award.
Still, if the Independent Spirit Awards fundamentally remain a modest celebration of modestly-budgeted cinema, the 2016 show served an important purpose, highlighting overlooked films and performers. Also, Kate McKinnon made out with Paul Dano:
Pretty sure that won’t happen at the Oscars, either.