Leave it to Sean Penn, with one joke, to underscore the problem the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences had been trying desperately to disprove all evening — the one summed up in a hashtag created by social media consultant April Reign: #OscarsSoWhite.
In this instance, it was #OscarsSoWhite Penn who couldn’t present the Academy Award for Best Picture to “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu without first uttering, “Who gave this sonofabitch a green card?” Penn opened the envelope, asked the question, and then proceeded to announce Iñárritu as the winner.
Then Iñárritu, who directed Penn in “21 Grams,” took the stage.
“I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico,” Iñárritu said at the close of his acceptance speech. “I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country, who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation. Thank you very much.”
Later, Iñárritu said he found Penn’s joke “hilarious.”
This came after a nearly four-hour parade of black and brown presenters in what looked like an effort to distract from the fact that this year’s crop of nominees was the least diverse since 1998. In addition to trotting out Oprah Winfrey, Kerry Washington, Terrence Howard, Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart and other highly visible black stars to present awards, there was a running gag between host Neil Patrick Harris and “The Help” Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer. In another audience bit, Harris chose “Selma” star David Oyelowo to demonstrate how everything sounds better in an English accent, but butchered the pronunciation of Oyelowo’s name.
By the end of the bloated telecast, Penn’s green-card gaffe served as punctuation to an awards season fraught with conversations and think pieces about Hollywood’s lack of diversity — a season in which both Ava DuVernay, the director of “Selma,” and Oyelowo, its star, both endured snubs from the Motion Picture Academy. Harris skewered the disparity with his first joke of the evening. “Welcome to the 87th Oscars,” he said. “Tonight, we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — sorry, brightest.”
It was those initial snubs that informed Reign’s decision to organize a boycott of the Oscars broadcast. In January, when the Oscar nominations were announced, Reign created the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag, and it took off. Larry Wilmore even referenced it in his inaugural broadcast of “The Nightly Show.” “The Oscar nominations are out, and they’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them,” he quipped.
Then she decided to take things further. On Sunday night, Reign led a live-tweet session of the Eddie Murphy comedy “Coming to America” during the Oscar telecast, refusing to reward the institution with her viewership and hoping to send a message by way of Nielsen ratings.
“Do anything other than watch the Oscars,” Reign said in a phone interview Sunday afternoon. “They don’t represent you. They don’t really care about your thoughts, and you’re just watching for that one snippet of your favorite actor who’s going to be on for 45 seconds. They don’t deserve the ratings if they’re not going to think about us the other 364 days of the year.”
Reign doesn’t think that actors and directors of color should divorce themselves from seeking recognition and validation from institutions like the Academy, which is 94 percent white and 77 percent male, but she did want moviegoers to send a message to studio executives and Academy members.
“I want people of color, people of marginalized communities, to be seen as equal with respect to the talents that they bring,” Reign said. “There can be no argument that David Oyelowo gave a fantastic performance in ‘Selma.’ How can one not say that his performance was not on par with Michael Keaton of ‘Birdman’? And Michael Keaton did a great job, but so did David. How can you nominate ‘Selma’ for Best Picture but then not nominate any of the facets that make up a best picture?”
Before the “Coming to America” tweet-up/Oscar boycott, Reign hosted a live Twitter interview with actress Aunjanue Ellis, one of the stars of the BET miniseries “The Book of Negroes.”
“We have to stop measuring ourselves against the white gaze, their institutions, their traditions,” Ellis tweeted, echoing a sentiment previously voiced by Spike Lee and Anthony Anderson. She continued, “When the Oscars fail to see the glory or brilliance of the work of non-whites, it is NOT our failure or insufficiency; it is theirs.”
Sunday was a study in contradictions; there was overwhelming emphasis on the visibility of black people in Hollywood, yet their peers hadn’t deemed their work fit for nomination in any of the major individual categories.
“I’m tired of all of this talk about ‘snubs’ — I thought for every one of [the snubs] there was a justifiable reason,” an anonymous Academy voter told the Hollywood Reporter last week. “What no one wants to say out loud is that Selma is a well-crafted movie, but there’s no art to it. If the movie had been directed by a 60-year-old white male, I don’t think that people would have been carrying on about it to the level that they were. And as far as the accusations about the Academy being racist? Yes, most members are white males, but they are not the cast of ‘Deliverance’ — they had to get into the Academy to begin with, so they’re not cretinous, snaggletoothed hillbillies. When a movie about black people is good, members vote for it. But if the movie isn’t that good, am I supposed to vote for it just because it has black people in it? I’ve got to tell you, having the cast show up in T-shirts saying “I can’t breathe” [at their New York premiere] — I thought that stuff was offensive.”
When John Legend and Common performed “Glory” Sunday in front of a re-created Edmund Pettus Bridge, they received a dramatic standing ovation. Tears streamed down Oyelowo’s face. Later, Common and Legend, the only black winners of the night, took home Oscars for Best Original Song.
In January, shortly after the Oscar nominations were announced, DuVernay attended a screening of “The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution,” a documentary by Stanley Nelson, at the Sundance Film Festival.
Following the screening, a woman’s voice boomed through the corridor of the Prospector Lodge in Park City, Utah, filling the room and reaching the double-height ceilings of the lobby.
“BEST DIRECTOR AVA DUVERNAY,” she bellowed, perhaps a fan, colleague, or both. She made her way through the throng following the “Selma” director to inform her that she thought the Academy was full of it.
DuVernay turned to acknowledge her and smiled before going back to answering questions and taking pictures in a space where she had indeed been recognized as Best.
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