What a difference three years can make!
In 2016, a widespread boycott of the Oscars drew attention to the lack of minority representation in the nominees and winners. The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, which was started in 2015 by BroadwayBlack.com managing editor April Reign, went viral on Twitter. It was a reaction to two consecutive years (2015 and 2016) in which all 20 nominees in the lead and supporting acting categories were white.
Just a year later, in 2017, the Oscar for best picture went to Moonlight, the moving chronicle of the life of a young man growing up in Miami confronting race, class and sexuality. This was a definite shift from the previous two years. Unfortunately, the evening is not best remembered for this victory, but instead for the on-stage mistake. As you’ll surely recall, La La Land was accidentally announced as the winner for Best Picture, causing chaos on stage, and Moonlight’s remarkable Oscar win was overshadowed by the controversy.
Fast forward to last Sunday night’s 91st Academy Awards. From the time the nominees were announced, it was evident that this year would be different from the #OscarsSoWhite days of a few years ago. Five of the eight nominees for Best Picture predominantly featured non-white casts and leads (Green Book, Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, and Roma). Plus, a quarter of the nominees (five out of twenty) for the lead and supporting acting categories were non-white.
Of course, all of these nominations wouldn’t have meant much if it didn’t correlate with some acceptance speeches. The night started out with a bang when the first announced award went to Regina King for a her powerful performance in If Beale Street Could Talk.
As a series of winners was announced (which included a diverse cast of winners: Ruth E. Carter for costume design, Spike Lee for adapted screenplay among others), the diverse representation of award presenters was equally remarkable. Queen Latifah, Angela Bassett, Michael B. Jordan, Tyler Perry, Pharrell Williams, Michelle Yeoh, Samuel L. Jackson and Serena Williams were among the presenters. Trevor Noah spoke in Xhosa, Diego Luna in Spanish.
Then, late in the evening, more winners were announced. Mahershala Ali won for Best Supporting Actor, Rami Malek for Best Actor, Alfonso Cuarón for Best Director,1 and Best Picture went to Green Book, the story of Dr. Don Shirley, the famous African-American pianist, touring the American South in the 1960’s with a white Italian-American driver.
Yes, diversity was on full display in 2019.
While this shift was applaudable, plenty of voices have risen up to criticize the lack of institutional change that is being glossed over by the one-night award ceremony. The fact remains that the vast majority of members of the Academy are white men, which shouldn’t be overlooked just because they vote for diverse winners.
The winning-film Green Book has also been subject to a lot of scrutiny and criticism, including from the family of Dr. Shirley.
All of these events – the Oscars night and the reactions – have led me to reflect on another “institution” that has been subject to much scrutiny recently: the Catholic Church. On the same day of the Academy Awards, the Vatican summit on sex abuse came to a close. It was a historic event, bringing together leaders in the Catholic Church from across the world to hear testimonies from survivors and to reflect on institutional issues that created and exacerbated this crisis.
At the same, this event was also marred by criticisms. The Vatican put forth no new policies. Survivors were disappointed and angered by the inaction. And while various voices were heard during the proceedings, the actual participants were restricted to male clergy members of the Church hierarchy.
I think that there are two important lessons we can take from this year’s Oscar ceremony and the Vatican sex abuse summit.
First, signs and actions matter. They have value. For the Oscars, this means that seeing black celebrities on stage as presenters and featuring minorities among the nominees and winners for major categories matters. For the Catholic Church, summoning together global representatives to reflect on institutional failings and hearing testimony from people so often silenced matters.
But second, signs and actions are not enough. What is needed is institutional reform. There continues to be a lack of diverse voices within the Academy, and the Catholic Church needs policy reform to address the deep-seated issues of the sex abuse crisis. This kind of reform does not occur quickly. Outward gestures, while meaningful, are insufficient when they are not accompanied by long-term actions meant to address underlying issues.
Three years have made quite a difference at the Academy Awards. But not so much of a difference. For the Academy, and for the Catholic Church, there is still a long way to go.
Cover image courtesy of FlickrCC user Disney- ABC Television Group.
- Cuarón’s victory continued the dominance of Mexican directors winning this category, with awards in five of the last six years, including two for Cuarón, two for Alejandro Iñárritu and one for Guillermo del Toro. ↩