Around midnight this morning, the Oscars wrapped up by awarding 12 Years a Slave the top prize to an enthusiastic response both from the audience and from those watching and commenting online. The film only won two other awards on the evening — Best Adapted Screenplay and Lupita Nyongo’s win for Best Supporting Actress — but there was a sense all evening long that the film was still the front-runner, even as Gravity took home trophy after trophy. Although I’ve yet to see it, every indication is that it’s a searing piece of work, full of weight and import and terrific craft all around.
Three and a half hours earlier, Ellen DeGeneres set the stage for the win. It’s the Oscar host’s job to be a little irreverent, although Ellen has become so mainstream, I’m sure ABC was hoping for more things like her wandering around taking pictures and ordering pizza. But she brought out some zing in her opening monologue, not the least of which was her bizarre dig at Liza Minnelli, there to honor the 75th anniversary of her mother’s classic film The Wizard of Oz. As she wrapped things up though, Ellen tossed this out when discussing how Oscar night was full of possibilities:
Possibility #1: 12 Years a Slave wins. Possibility #2: You’re all racists.
And everyone oohed and aahed and laughed and it was on with the show. But the thing is, it may actually be the case that Ellen wasn’t joking. An evening that honored Sidney Poitier’s groundbreaking win for Best Actor in 1963 glossed over the fact that maybe the ground really didn’t break all that much; only three other African-American actors have won the award in the fifty years since, with only one African-American Best Actress ever. It took 82 years for a woman to win Best Director, and 86 years for a non-white director to win it, with only three African-Americans ever having been nominated.
That’s not good. And nowhere near as liberal as some would like to believe Hollywood to be. For all the talk of progress, of barriers being broken, the Oscars are still very much a Caucasian boys club. Maybe Ellen was being a little more insightful than we’re giving her credit for.