Epic storytelling and grand cinematic visions won big during a surprisingly edgy, entertaining and often political Academy Awards ceremony Sunday night. The producers of the investigative-journalism biopic Spotlight took home the Oscar for Best Picture, while director Alejandro G. Iñárritu and actor Leonard DiCaprio earned honors for their contributions to The Revenant. Additionally, Mad Max: Fury Road swept a number of technical categories.
The evening’s biggest winner, however, was host Chris Rock who walked onstage to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” and didn’t stop challenging the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees throughout the three-and-a-half-hour broadcast. The comedian dedicated the majority of his 10-minute monologue to the subject, calling the gala the “White People’s Choice Awards” and speculating that for much of the Academy Awards’ 88-year history African-Americans didn’t protest because “we had real things to protest at the time.”
It was an explosive and often hilarious barrage that he echoed throughout the night with one-liners (saying “Ah, we’re black” after a commercial), his presenter prologues (introducing Creed’s Michael B. Jordan as a “should-have-been nominee”) and introducing sardonic interludes (“Black Actors, White Roles,” Angela Bassett’s “Black History Month Minute” about Jack Black and an interview segment outside a Compton movie theater).
The host’s sentiments resounded throughout the entire broadcast in speeches by presenters, award winners and even Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs. “The Oscars celebrate the storytellers who have the opportunity to work in the powerful medium of film,” the latter said. “And with that opportunity comes responsibility. Our audiences are global and rich in diversity, and every facet of our industry should be as well.”
“These problems of today will eventually become problems of the old,” comedian Kevin Hart said in an uplifting moment before introducing the winner for Animated Feature Film. “Let’s not let this negative issue of diversity beat us.”
“What a great opportunity to our generation to liberate ourselves of all prejudice and this tribal thinking and make sure for once and forever that the color of our skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair,” said Iñárritu, the first director in over six decades to win two years in a row, in his acceptance speech. (Only John Ford and Joseph L. Mankiewicz share that back-to-back honor, director-wise.)
Other kinds of inequality became talking points throughout the evening as well. Vice President Joe Biden gave a powerful speech drawing attention rape culture on college campuses when introducing a performance by Lady Gaga, who, in turn, welcomed a chorus of sexual-assault survivors onstage with her for her nominated song “‘Til It Happens to You.” Filmmaker Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy, who won in the Documentary Short category for A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, said her film – which is about honor killings in Pakistan – showed the power of “determined women [working] together” and that it convinced the country’s prime minister to change the law. And Sam Smith dedicated his trophy to the worldwide LGBT community. (“No jokes there,” Rock said to big laughs in the audience. “Not gonna get me in trouble.”)
Global warming also became a frequent subject in several speeches. “Climate change is real,” DiCaprio announced after making his Best Actor thank yous. “It is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work together.” Elsewhere, among Mad Max: Fury Road’s six(!) wins, costume designer Jenny Beavan said that the film’s post-apocalyptic setting could become a reality “if we don’t stop polluting our atmospheres.” And Star Wars: The Force Awakens actor Andy Serkis likened a “planet-threatening megalomaniacal monster” to Donald Trump.
Meanwhile, the films and actors that won the awards throughout the evening were often as unexpected as the political commentary that surrounded them. Underdog Best Supporting Actor nominee Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) ended up besting Mark Ruffalo’s hard-nosed Spotlight reporter, Sylvester Stallone’s reprisal of Rocky Balboa (a heavily favored winner) and Tom Hardy’s bear-tough Revenant villain. And Alicia Vikander won a Best Supporting Actress statuette over Rooney Mara’s Carol character, Kate Winslet’s Polish Steve Jobs character and Jennifer Jason Leigh’s bloody-faced Hateful Eight prisoner. And lastly, Sam Smith’s schmaltzy Spectre theme “Writing’s on the Wall” rose above Gaga’s Hunting Ground song and the one memorably good thing about Fifty Shades of Grey, the Weeknd’s “Earned It.”
Additionally, 87-year-old composer Ennio Morricone gave an emotional speech for winning Best Original Score for The Hateful Eight in an upset over Oscar favorite John Williams. “My tribute goes to the other nominees and in particular John Williams,” the Italian Maestro said through an interpreter of the “prestigious acknowledgement.”
The evening was also filled with many lighter moments, from Rock coaxing Hollywood’s glitterati to shell out $65,243 for Girl Scout cookies to Louis C.K. joking that the Best Documentary Short trophy is the only award that matters to its recipient (“This Oscar is going home in a Honda Civic,” he joked) to nine-year-old Room cutie Jacob Tremblay praising Rock’s voice work in Madagascar.
The broadcast may have been long, but it rarely devolved into abject boredom. As far as entertainment goes, this Oscars will be the one to beat in coming years. All the Academy needs to do is expand its horizons.