The Film Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday was all about taking subtle digs at the more formal, glamorous Oscars ceremony, opting to elevate films and filmmakers overlooked by the Academy Awards this year.
The winner of the Best Feature award was Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk, a film that was left out of the Best Picture Oscar race. Jenkins was also named Best Director at the Spirit Awards but was notably left off the directing category at the Oscars.
“I’m not going to lie, I didn’t want to win this damn award with everything going on in this world, it just feels strange to be up here,” Jenkins said. He then chose to reiterate Regina King’s speech from the Golden Globes in which she urged everyone in the room to work with a female filmmaker, to change the most recent statistics where only four percent of women were shown to have directed studio films. He also thanked the female cast and producers of If Beale Street Could Talk, saying, “All these women told me what had to be. I had to check my directorial ego and learn, I can’t make a movie about women without women’s voices at the forefront.”
Beale Street producer Adele Romanski accepted the Best Feature award for the film and praised the other filmmakers in the room for their “really great work.” She also thanked the author of the book the film is based on, James Baldwin, “without whom none of us would be standing here.”
Held the day before the Oscars ceremony, the Spirit Awards take place over a boozy luncheon in a tent on the Santa Monica beach, where nominees mingle casually through the course of the awards show. Aubrey Plaza hosted this year’s Spirit Awards, taking pointed digs at the Oscars throughout her opening sketch and monologue.
“This year is a special year,” she said. “This show is getting back to its indie roots, this is not another year where the Oscars just ripped off our Best Feature nominations, and we would not want that now, would we?” she quipped on stage as the audience cheered.
The Spirit Awards, voted on by the members of the Film Independent organization, honors the best achievements in independent film, those made for under $20 million and not made by a film studio.
Previous years have seen Oscar frontrunners win the top categories at the Spirit Awards the day before the Academy Awards, but this year didn’t see a major overlap between the nominations for the two awards shows. Oscar contenders Glenn Close, Regina King, and Richard E. Grant did win the acting categories, taking a moment to praise the power of independent film.
Close, who brought her dog Pip up on stage as she accepted Best Female Lead for The Wife, said, “I’m so honored to be here with all the women in this category.”
“All of us has been in this awards season … but it’s really ever about the work, no matter what you’re wearing or which red carpet you walk on or what people say to you, it’s all extremely humbling and gratifying, the fact that we get together and tell these stories that make a difference in the world. I’m proud to be in this room and with these people,” she added.
Earlier in the night, Close said on stage that it was her first time at the Spirit Awards and that she was surprised by its setting. “I really thought it was on the beach under a white flapping tent. I was really surprised to walk in here,” she said with a laugh, referring to the large tented room with waiters serving champagne and attendees dining on a tasty gourmet lunch.
King, who won Best Supporting Female for If Beale Street Could Talk and is nominated in the same category at the Oscars, said she hadn’t done a film in almost 10 years before she did Beale Street, and she thanked Jenkins, calling him her hero.
Grant, who won Best Supporting Male for Can You Ever Forgive Me? and is nominated in the same category at the Oscars, said, ‘This movie, more than anything, is an homage to that generation of men that were wiped out by that disease [AIDS].” The screenwriters of the film, Nicole Holofcener and Jeff Whitty — both nominated in the adapted screenplay category at the Oscars — won the Spirit Award and Holofcener brought the director Marielle Heller, who was notably excluded from the Oscars directing race, on stage as well to thank her.
“It’s so wonderful that this movie about two cranky, untrustworthy, lonely, gay alcoholics got made. It proved that outlier character who you rather not spend time with, who aren’t likable, can still be entertaining and worthy of our love,” Holofcener said. She dedicated the win to the film’s lead subject, Lee Israel, saying, “I wish she could have lived to see the movie — she did not — and I wish she could have been here, even though she wouldn’t have been very nice to anyone.”
Mexico’s Roma and Britain’s The Favourite, the two films that are the leading Oscar nominees with 10 nods each, were only eligible in the Best International Film category at the Spirit Awards. It was Roma that took home the prize. “I’m optimistic right now that it seems like we’re reaching a moment in which a where greater diversity is happening in cinema,” said filmmaker Alfonso Cuarón. “I think this diversity is very soon going to make this category relevant.”
Other big winners included Bo Burnham’s coming-of-age tale Eighth Grade for Best First Screenplay, and Boots Riley’s Sorry to Bother You for Best First Feature. Neither landed Oscar nods.