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Oscars 2016: Social issues were in the spotlight, but diversity loomed above all

Host Chris Rock made the lack of diversity in Hollywood the main theme of his jokes throughout the Academy Awards ceremony.
Host Chris Rock made the lack of diversity in Hollywood the main theme of his jokes throughout the Academy Awards ceremony.
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Headed into Sunday’s Academy Awards, the debate was which movie would prevail at the 88th annual Oscars: “The Revenant,” “The Big Short,” “Mad Max: Fury Road” or “Spotlight.” But when the evening was over, another Hollywood drama ended up dominating the show: the entertainment industry’s lack of diversity.

From host Chris Rock’s opening joke — "I’m here at the Oscars, otherwise known as the White People’s Choice Awards” — to the acceptance by best director winner Alejandro González Iñárritu about racial tolerance, the Academy Awards confronted head-on the growing crisis of inclusion in show business.

Even the president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, used almost all of her usually pro forma remarks during the telecast to address the issue, saying, “Everyone in the Hollywood community has a role to play in bringing about the vital changes the industry needs so that we can accurately reflect the world today.”

For the second consecutive year, not a single one of the 20 nominees in the four Oscar acting categories was a person of color. And only two women — the filmmakers behind the foreign-language movie, “Mustang,” and the documentary, “What Happened, Miss Simone?” — directed feature-length films that earned nominations.

It wasn’t just comments about diversity that made this year’s ceremony probably the most political in modern Oscar history. There were remarks about the environment by best actor winner Leonardo DiCaprio and “Mad Max” costume designer Jenny Beavan; the potential corruption of political candidates by financial contributions from bankers (delivered by “Big Short” director Adam McKay, who shared the adapted screenplay Oscar); and the Vatican’s need to address more fully the conduct of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church (by “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar, who said: “Pope Francis, it’s time to protect the children and restore the faith”).

If the constant commentary was a surprise, so, too, were some of the night’s winners, including “Spotlight,” which took the top prize as best picture. That film prevailed over  “The Big Short” and “The Revenant” in what had been a particularly see-saw year for the big prize. 

"The Revenant," an epic tale of frontier survival, won for director, actor and cinematography. Emmanuel Lubezki, who shot the film using only natural light, became the first cinematographer to ever win three consecutive Oscars. Two years ago he won for “Gravity,” and last year for “Birdman.” And Iñárritu is only the third director to ever win in consecutive years. (He won last year for "Birdman.")

“Mad Max” took home the most Oscars, with six total wins, all in technical categories that included two wins for sound.

“Spotlight,” an account of the Boston Globe’s tenacious reporting into how the local Roman Catholic diocese protected pedophile priests, won only two trophies, but one statuette mattered the most: best picture. The film’s other triumph was for original screenplay.

“I think we are all genuinely thrilled to the core," producer Sugar said backstage. "And not just because it's a great personal accomplishment for us and for our companies, but it's really an opportunity to bring this conversation to a world stage. And for that, we're really grateful.”

If “Spotlight’s” best picture victory was mildly unexpected, several other winners were far more surprising. Mark Rylance won for best supporting actor for “Bridge of Spies,” beating favored Sylvester Stallone from “Creed.” And the team behind “Ex Machina” won the visual effects Oscar, even though they only had an effects budget of about $4 million — or about a tenth of what was spent for effects on “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

And when the last trophy was handed out, and Rock had told his last pointed joke about diversity, one reality remained: the Motion Picture Academy can do all it wants to become more inclusive, but it's up to the studios to change what we see on the big screen.

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