Last night’s Academy Awards were entirely self-flagellating on the subject of race, but they probably had to be. The #oscarssowhite protest was viewed as an existential threat to the Academy, or at least to its prestige, and I heard a rumor that ABC (who airs the Oscars) had called the Academy and said: you have to do something.
Which they did, with their proposal to change membership rules, and with the way the telecast was presented. Not that it helped the ratings, which were reportedly down 6% from last year’s already low number. ABC’s producers had a couple of camera mishaps, but they kept the show moving.
Host Chris Rock surprised no one by attacking the race issue at full throttle in his opening monologue, and the numerous presenters of color seemed aimed at balancing the palette — knowing the winners would be mostly pink of pigmentation. Sadly, there was a racial tone-deafness to a joke about Asian kids (one with a Jewish name) being the best accountants at Price Waterhouse Cooper. And a cameo by Stacey Dash sailed entirely over the heads of anyone outside the bubble of Black Twitter.
It was gratifying to see the Chilean short film winners and director Alejandro González Iñárritu holding hardware. I suppose we might have a conversation about how ‘whiteness’ applies sometimes but not other times to people whose backgrounds are Latin American. Then again, The Revenant‘s B-story featured indigenous Americans — the only real Americans, whatever politicians might say.
But it was not The Revenant‘s lot to ultimately triumph, despite Iñarritu winning Best Director and Leo “finally” getting his Best Actor win. It was Spotlight that took home the big trophy, even as Mad Max: Fury Road, save for a surprise win from Ex Machina in VFX, swept the technical categories.
Why did Spotlight win Best Picture?
Spotlight had been considered the front-runner for much of the Awards season, but some late wins by The Revenant and The Big Short in guild awards had made observers think it’s star was on the wane.
However, beyond the fact that it was a quality film that had always been in the conversation, I think there were a few factors that put it over the top. First, it is known that the Academy’s largest block of voters (by profession) is actors. Spotlight truly shines as an ensemble.
Second, the Best Picture vote uses a preferential ballot system, whereby being a second or third choice of many voters helps in a year like 2015, where competitors like The Revenant and Big Short were both loved and loathed. Spotlight was pretty much liked by all.
It is a well-made picture, through and through, and a paean to journalism as a profession. Like The Big Short, it presents an era of very recent history that is already long gone. Yet Spotlight‘s focus is on a chapter we can bathe in a warm glow of nostalgia: newspaper reporters comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. It is a writerly drama (as evidenced by it’s only other award, Best Original Screenplay). And of course, it has been a rallying point for Catholic abuse survivors.
Resonantly, the best moment of the show was when Lady Gaga was joined on stage by a group of sexual assault survivors. Her song lost to a James Bond song, but it will go down in history as one of the most powerful musical performances ever broadcast.
There were no shortage of causes trumpeted on the Kodak stage, and #oscarssowhite eventually became one with a chorus that included climate change, LGBT rights, and Pakistan’s culture of honor killings. And that, really, is the Academy and the larger world of filmmaking shining at their best: celebrating the art, and also its power to change lives.
The Academy voters couldn’t have picked a better film than Spotlight to represent these ideals, often strived-for but rarely so firmly held.