After two years of intense backlash against the Oscars over what was perceived as an extreme lack of diversity, black performers won two out of four of the major acting awards, while “Moonlight,” a coming-of-age story set in Miami won Best Picture.
Presenter Warren Beatty initially read “La La Land,” as the winner of Best Picture, before it was quickly discovered that it was “Moonlight’s” night. It was worth the wait as this year’s Academy Awards marked the first time in Oscar history that there were more than three black winners across all major categories.
Viola Davis picked up her first Oscar for Best Supporting Actress— after three tries — for playing the loyal, but scorned Rose Maxson in the screen adaptation of August Wilson’s “Fences.”
Davis beat out Octavia Spencer of “Hidden Figures” and Naomie Harris of “Moonlight,” marking the first time that three black actors have been nominated for a single category.
Newcomer Mahershala Ali won Best Supporting Actor for his work in “Moonlight.”
With the two acting awards Sunday night, it was the biggest single night for black performers since 2002, when Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won for Best Actor and Best Actress.
Washington and Ruth Negga were both also nominated for Best Actor and Best Actress for “Fences” and “Loving,” respectively.
“It is always good to have your work acknowledged, but I don’t think it necessarily portends a long-term shift in how business has traditionally been done in film and TV,” said Gil Robertson, president of the African American Film Critics Association. “I think that the jury is still out as to whether or not this signals anything new.”
“O.J.: Made in America,” one of four feature documentaries helmed by a black filmmaker, won the Oscar for Best Documentary.
Barry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney won Best Adapted Screenplay for “Moonlight.”
Filmmaker Russell Williams II said those wins highlight the work of African Americans behind the camera.
“A lot of people behind the camera that had amazing accomplishments,” said Williams.
He should know.
He has won two Academy Awards for Best Sound for “Glory” and “Dances With Wolves.”
“When you look at that credit list, there are a whole lot more names behind the camera than in front of it. But there is no easy way in,” said Williams, who now teaches film at American University. “Hopefully, this will be a continuing movement.”
In 2015 and 2016, following the 2014 Best Supporting Actress win for Lupita Nyong’o, the #OscarsSoWhite protest movement against the Oscars was loud and strong as each of the 40 available nominee slots for the acting roles were taken by white performers.
But Robertson felt that it shouldn’t have had to come to that.
“I shouldn’t have to put a gun to your head to make you do something that you didn’t want to do to begin with,” Robertson said. “Anytime you have to go on an Internet campaign, I don’t know if I want it like that. We have been around this mulberry bush many times. But I wouldn’t say that I am optimistic, but I will say that I am hopeful.”
This year, there was a major shift.
A record six black performers were nominated across the four categories. It was also significant that their performances were spread across four movies, “Fences,” “Loving,” “Hidden Figures,” and “Moonlight.”
In another nod to diversity, Indian actor Dev Patel was nominated for his supporting role in “Lion.”
“What is wonderful about all of those actors is that they have been in the business long enough to know how special this moment is,” said D.W. Moffett, chair of the film and television program at the Savannah College of Art and Design.
In 1940 Hattie McDaniel, who starred in the Georgia-based “Gone With the Wind,” became the first African-American performer to be nominated and win an Oscar. When she accepted her best supporting Oscar, she wasn’t even allowed to sit with the other members of the cast and delivered an acceptance speech that was written for her.
It would be another 28 years, 1968 that two or more black performers – Beah Richards and Carol Channing (who was passing for white) — were nominated in the same year.
Moffett, who is also an actor, who recently wrapped the Peabody Award-winning “Switched at Birth,” and starred in NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” said this was just the push that Hollywood might need right now.
“Unfortunately, Hollywood sometimes needs to be kicked in the [butt]. What I am happy about is that the Oscars got the push and people have responded,” Moffett said. “Hollywood has a way of swinging the pendulum too far in either direction, but I can tell you that the pie chart changed. This is going to allow the pie chart to stay more varied.”
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