Amid all the drama from last night’s unfortunate Best Picture mix-up, you may have overlooked some serious Oscar milestones.
The Oscars have a reputation for being notoriously biased toward white filmmakers and actors, and toward a certain strain of old-Hollywood nostalgia. The blatant refusal to acknowledge talent of color in the Academy’s 2016 nominees prompted the searing movement #OscarsSoWhite, created by writer and activist April Reign. The Academy responded by inviting a record number of new members, lowering the percentage of white members from 92 percent to 89 percent. Diversity?
This year’s list of nominees did include more people of color, including Moonlight’s exceptional all-black cast; Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer and Naomie Harris for Best Supporting Actress; and Ava Duvernay for the superlative 13th. This prompted a slew of headlines praising the Oscars for their “massive strides” in diversity and inclusion, such as CNN’s suggested hashtag of #OscarsLessWhite. Obviously, one year of inclusion does not erase the past 80 years of exclusion. “Let’s be clear, it’s a much better year than it was the last two years, but complacency and the notion that things have changed are things that I would guard against,” actor David Oyelowo told The NYT. “The infrastructure that enabled two years of OscarsSoWhite hasn’t fundamentally changed.” And as Paste’s Shannon Houston put it in her essay “I Ain’t Sorry: After 88 Years of Oscar Whiteness, Black People Need Not Thank the Academy,” “Finally, finally. Black excellence rewarded, acknowledged. But rewarded and acknowledged by whom, precisely? The whom matters. And the 88-year-long history of the whom matters even more.”
With all that said, here are a few incredible milestones that happened last night.
1. Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar.
Ali won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his groundbreaking role in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight. Incredibly (or maybe not so incredibly), Ali is the first Muslim actor to receive an Oscar—ever. While accepting the award, Ali said, “It’s not about you. It’s about these characters. You are a servant. You’re in service to these stories and these characters and I’m so blessed to have had an opportunity.” His achievement shines against the shadow of Trump’s Muslim travel ban proposal.
2. Viola Davis is the second black actor to win an Emmy, Tony and Oscar for acting.
Davis won Best Supporting Actress for her role as Rose in Fences, though many people would argue she should have been nominated for Best Actress, rather than Best Supporting Actress. Her win puts her in the history books as the second black actor to win an Emmy (How To Get Away With Murder), Tony (Fences) and an Oscar. The first was Whoopi Goldberg. Watch Davis’ incredibly moving speech at the bottom of this post.
3. Moonlight won Best Picture.
Talking about the embarrassing envelope mixup just distracts from the fact that Moonlight is a masterpiece. Poetic, beautiful, subtle and devastating, don’t call Moonlight’s win an upset: it deserved Best Picture, period. With a low budget of $1.6 million, Jenkins’ film focuses around a poor, gay black man in various stages of his life—not exactly the Academy’s preferred subject matter. It also has an all-black cast that makes the film come alive with their superb performances.
4. Iran’s The Salesman won Best Foreign Film.
Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi was noticeably absent from accepting his Oscar for Best Foreign Film—and for good reason. Under Trump’s proposed travel ban, Farhadi would not have been able to travel to the United States. Therefore, he decided to boycott it, which in many ways made his win even sweeter. Iranian-American astronaut Anousheh Ansari read a statement from Farhadi:
I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S … Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear.
5. This was the first Oscar telecast to feature more than three black winners.
Said winners included Moonlight’s Ali for Best Supporting Actor; Fences’ Davis for Best Supporting Actress; O.J.: Made in America director-producer Ezra Edelman for Best Documentary Feature; and Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney for Best Adapted Screenplay.
Speaking of Moonlight, we listed it as our number-one movie of 2016—read our full review here, and while you’re at it, don’t miss our reviews of Fences and The Salesman. You’ll find the full list of last night’s winners here, and Davis’ acceptance speech below.