The Awardist: Historic wins change the gold standard at 2019 Oscars
At the star-studded Governors Ball held directly after the Oscars, Black Panther stars Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, and Winston Duke grabbed newly minted winner Hannah Beachler, the innovative production designer of Marvel’s superhero film, in a tight hug. They huddled together to snap selfies, and Gurira and Beachler clasped hands, squealing in excitement as they held her Oscar.
Beachler’s was one of many groundbreaking wins during Hollywood’s biggest night — and not just for delivering Marvel Studios into the winner’s circle at the Academy Awards on Sunday. She and the film’s costume designer, Ruth E. Carter, became the first African-American women to take trophies in their respective categories, joining a record-breaking class of 15 women and seven black artists to earn honors across the Oscars’ 24 categories. In another Oscar first, three of the four acting category winners were people of color: Best Supporting Actress Regina King (If Beale Street Could Talk) and Best Supporting Actor Mahershala Ali (Green Book), who are African-American, and Best Actor Rami Malek (Bohemian Rhapsody), who is Egyptian-American. (The Favourite’s Olivia Colman took home the Best Actress prize.)
It was a night for elevating diverse talent in front of and behind the camera — and had a telecast up 11 percent in the ratings from last year’s show. “There were so many groundbreaking black creators [tonight],” said Peter Ramsey, co-director of Best Animated Feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, who became the first African-American filmmaker to win the category. “For me to be lucky enough somehow to be anywhere near this wave, it’s a lot of my own longest dreams finally coming true.”
That sea change hasn’t quite penetrated through the entirety of the Oscar voting bloc, however, given that the Best Picture honor went to the controversy-laden Green Book, which many observers criticized for perpetuating white-savior tropes and black stereotypes. The film edged out stiff competition for the top prize, including Black Panther; BlacKkKlansman, the story of a black police detective who infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan; and Roma, Alfonso Cuarón’s drama centered on an indigenous Mexican housekeeper — each film exemplary of the increase in diverse stories finding their way to the top of voters’ minds.
Green Book, which tells the story of black classical pianist Don Shirley (Ali) hiring Italian-American working-class bouncer Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to drive him through the Jim Crow South in 1962, faced backlash in its run-up to the ceremony. Shirley’s family criticized director Peter Farrelly and screenwriter-producer Nick Vallelonga for failing to contact them while making the film about the late musician. A story from 1998 recirculated about Farrelly’s penchant for flashing his genitals as a joke, as did a story about Vallelonga’s 2015 tweet supporting Donald Trump’s false claim that Muslims in New Jersey celebrated the Sept. 11 attacks (Farrelly and Vallelonga both apologized for the respective incidents.) Though the film won the audience prize at the Toronto International Film Festival and nabbed the National Board of Review and Producers Guild awards for best film, this flurry of scandals that arose in and around the voting period could have derailed the film’s Oscar chances. But instead, the feel-good story of two men overcoming racial and class boundaries to become unlikely friends struck a chord with older white men, the still-dominant demographic of Academy voting members. (It also likely benefited from the preferential voting system.) Vallelonga, Farrelly, and Brian Currie won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar as well.
When Julia Roberts announced Green Book as the Best Picture winner, the message was loud and clear: As far as the majority of Academy voters were concerned, controversies and criticisms would not detract from their love of the film. At the auditorium’s lobby bar, the loudest celebration of the win came from an elderly white gentleman who pumped his fists, shouting, “Yes, yes, yes!”
Veteran filmmaker Spike Lee voiced his dislike of Green Book’s big win, telling reporters backstage that “the ref made a bad call.” Lee, who won his first competitive Oscar, for Best Adapted Screenplay on BlacKkKlansman, recognizes that his win is part of a groundswell of change happening at the core of the Academy. Much of the undercurrent rose from the #OscarsSoWhite movement led by April Reign and the efforts made by former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, who implemented an initiative in 2016 to double membership of minorities and women by 2020. “[Boone Isaacs] had to work the board of governors to make them understand that the Academy should look like the rest of America and not be such an exclusive affair. You would have not seen the diversity in [the] show had that not happened,” Lee told EW.
The Academy this year said it has 7,902 active voting members, of which around 30 percent — nearly 2,400 members — were added from 2016 to 2018, a period focused on boosting younger and more diverse members. This shift could be what led to a slew of historic wins this year — Chinese-Canadian Domee Shi, Pixar’s first female director, and her producing partner Becky Neiman-Cobb became the first female duo to win the Best Animated Short category, for Bao. Cuarón became the first person to win Best Director and Best Cinematography for the same film (Roma). And even though the Crazy Rich Asians team didn’t land any nominations, stars Constance Wu, Henry Golding, Gemma Chan, and Michelle Yeoh were the center of attention at the Oscars’ backstage bar, cementing their status as the new darlings of Hollywood.
But there’s still a ways to go. In a year when women helmed some of the films that were in early awards conversations, none earned a Best Director nomination — most notably Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?, which scored three Oscar nominations, including Best Actress. “I feel like I’m here representing the women directors,” Heller told EW at the Governors Ball. “I met Debra Granik [director of Leave No Trace] last week and she said, ‘We’re all so happy you’re going to be there.’ And so that gave me a little bit of strength coming into tonight, where I felt like, ‘All right, I’m doing my sisters proud.’”
The mood at the Governors Ball was joyous, with guests, voters, nominees, and winners — a diverse crowd reflective of the shifts taking place in the film industry — drinking champagne and dancing to tunes spun by Questlove. Angela Bassett was celebrating both Black Panther’s and Lee’s wins, lovingly calling the latter her “Spikey-poo.” From Bassett’s perspective, the night’s honors were mostly on the right track: “Oscars so black! Oscars so diverse! This is what the world looked like tonight. It was wonderful!”
Additional reporting by Tim Stack, Shirley Li, Marc Snetiker, and Devan Coggan.