By Gene Seymour
Editor’s note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the writer.
(CNN) — In case there were any lingering doubts that this year’s 88th annual Academy Awards ceremony was a tad more subversive than its predecessors, those doubts could be shut down by the closing-credits musical train.
First came the orchestrated version of “Hollywood Swinging,” the raucous 1973 rhythm-and-blues/funk standard by black pop icons Kool & the Gang, followed by “Fight the Power,” the in-your-face hip-hop classic by Public Enemy that was the theme song for the 1989 Spike Lee provocation, “Do the Right Thing.”
Yep. This was not your father’s or grandfather’s Oscar-cast, unless your father or grandfather was something other than a white male.
In a way, it was the blackest Oscars ever. “You want diversity? We got diversity,” host Chris Rock announced at the end of one of the best and most timely opening monologues in Oscar history.
About which, more in a minute. But first, let’s talk about the results — which, by themselves, turned out to be a lot more diverse than most people expected.
In a year when projected winners in all the major categories were considered foregone conclusions, there were at least three stunning upsets. They began with the best picture winner, “Spotlight,” which despite being all but universally acclaimed for its taut depiction of The Boston Globe reporters’ epoch-making inquiry into sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, was given little chance of overtaking “The Revenant,” the grisly frontier revenge drama of a scout’s ordeal after being left to die in a wintry wasteland.
“The Revenant,” otherwise, did OK, with Leonardo DiCaprio’s intense portrayal of the determined scout winning his first Oscar for best actor, and the movie’s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, becoming only the third person in Academy history to win a second consecutive Oscar for best direction. He’d won last year for “Birdman.”
The other major upset came in the best supporting actor category, where Sylvester Stallone, riding waves of goodwill and great reviews for his touching revival of his Rocky Balboa persona for the movie “Creed,” was unexpectedly edged out by British actor Mark Rylance’s brooding, subtly polished rendering of Russian spy Rudolf Abel in the Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies.”
Though few, if any, saw these surprises coming, there was a sense going into this Oscar night that it was going to be determinedly different — even somewhat transgressive — as it would have to meet, head-on, the furor aroused when an all-white slate of acting nominees was announced, prompting calls for a black boycott of the festivities and setting off an impassioned, often-awkward public dialogue within the movie community about whether it’s doing enough to promote diversity of race, sex and sexuality in its movies.
The furor also aroused anticipation over how Rock, one of the more influential and inventive African-American stand-up comics, would address the issue in his monologue. The early returns indicate he didn’t disappoint.
“The real question,” Rock said, “what everybody wants to know … is Hollywood racist?… Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it fetch me some lemonade racist? No, no, no. It’s a different type of racist. … It ain’t that kind of racist that you’ve become accustomed to.
“Hollywood,” Rock said, “is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Rhonda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is. But things are changing. … We got a black Rocky this year. Some people call it ‘Creed,’ I call it ‘Black Rocky.’ And that’s an unbelievable statement because ‘Rocky’ takes place in a world where white athletes are as good as black athletes. ‘Rocky’ is a science-fiction movie!”
The laughs that greeted such barbs were braced by relief that seemed to pervade the entire auditorium, especially when Rock added, “It’s not about boycotting anything. … We want opportunity. We want black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors.”
Academy Awards co-producer Reginald Hudlin — whose credits include several NAACP Image Award telecasts — made it clear from the tone of the broadcast that this controversy was going to be confronted with as much cheekiness as decorum would allow.
At one point, Rock reprised a routine from his previous 2005 Oscar hosting gig in which he stood outside a predominantly black movie theater in Los Angeles interviewing black moviegoers to see if they had even seen or heard of the nominated films (they hadn’t) and what they thought of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
For Pete’s sake, the telecast even brought out actress Stacey Dash to wish everyone a happy Black History Month. The presence of Dash, an African-American actress and a Fox news regular, whose controversial comments criticizing Black History Month have been widely denounced, appeared to leave the audience baffled as to what she was doing there.
The rest of the evening was suffused with direct and unfettered political challenges, whether coming during DiCaprio’s acceptance speech, when he insisted that climate change be confronted urgently, or with Lady Gaga’s grandiose performance of her Oscar-nominated song, “Til It Happens to You,” from “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about campus rape and its cover-up. Her performance, introduced by Vice President Joseph Biden, concluded with her being joined onstage by a crowd of rape victims standing hand-to-hand with Lady G in defiant stoicism.
The song didn’t win the Oscar. “Writing on the Wall,” the theme song from the James Bond movie “Spectre,” did. Sam Smith, who co-wrote the piece and performed it Sunday night, accepted his Oscar on behalf of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community, referencing a quote from actor Ian McKellen about homophobia in the film industry.
Even with these and other openly progressive displays intent on pushing Hollywood forward, the Oscar ceremonies ultimately seemed to drag on as long as they always have, with acceptance speeches spilling over their allotted time despite this year’s “scrolling device” across the bottom of the screen that was supposed to list all the people winners wanted to thank.
Still, in case anybody missed the symbolism, it was the voice of God, belonging to African-American Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman (who once played God in a Jim Carrey comedy) who, with a puckish grin, announced the climactic shock of “Spotlight’s” unexpected triumph.
Things may stay the same tomorrow. But it would appear, for now, points were made — and won’t be easily dismissed.