Spike Lee excitedly hugs Samuel L. Jackson after winning an Oscar for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay. (Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images)
Arnold O. Beckman High School

Opinion: What the 91st Academy Awards meant for Hollywood diversity

2018 was a groundbreaking — or, rather, glass-ceiling-breaking — year for film, with diverse Box Office hits proving the popular appeal of representation and cultural inclusion. “Black Panther” dominated the box office, becoming the biggest hit of 2018 with a gross of nearly $1.4 billion.

Crazy Rich Asians” made an incredible $238.5 million and smashed barriers as the first major Hollywood film to have an all-Asian cast in 25 years. (Or as Sandra Oh said it in her opening monologue for the Golden Globes, “It is the first studio film with an Asian American lead since “Ghost in the Shell” and “Aloha.”)

And “Love, Simon” performed well commercially and critically, earning $66.32 million from the box office and applause from critics who almost unanimously appreciate the wholesome sweetness of the first mainstream teen romantic comedy centered on a gay teen.

To match the rise in representation in mainstream films, the Academy Awards met diversity in a historic night on Feb. 24. A record-breaking 15 women and seven African Americans took home Oscars, and the night continued with historic firsts (and seconds and thirds… and fifths) that solidified the 91st Academy Awards as a night to remember.

The 2019 Oscars had a rocky start, with the whole removing-Kevin-Hart-and-having-no-host debacle (which hadn’t been done since the infamous 61st Academy Awards in 1989). And the anger over the absent Best Picture nom for “If Beale Street Could Talk” and lack of any nominations for “Paddington 2″ and “Hereditary” didn’t help with calming nervous audiences. But the Academy relieved the anxious anticipation of loyal viewers by having a short, powerful (and not at all cringey) opening number by Adam Lambert and Queen and by finally giving Spike Lee, as well as other worthy and diverse filmmakers, a long-awaited, well-deserved Oscar for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay.

The Oscars definitely picked itself up after the exclusion of black nominees from the 2016 Oscars ceremony that inspired #OscarsSoWhite. April Reign’s hard work to campaign for ethnic diversity and gender inclusion in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is starting to pay off, and Cheryl Boone Isaacs has clearly been keeping to her promise to invite a more diverse group of members into the Academy. Their hard-work is clearly making a difference, and we had a glorious three hours and 15 minutes to celebrate the growing diversity in Hollywood.

elizabeth chai vasarhelyi jimmy chin and shannon dill 91st annual academy awards Opinion: What the 91st Academy Awards meant for Hollywood diversity
Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi, Jimmy Chin, Shannon Dill, and Even Hayes (not shown) pose with their Oscars for Best Documentary Feature for Free Solo. (Photo by Kevin Winter / Getty Images)

And the winners were…

Hannah Bleacher became the first African American to win (and to be nominated for) an Oscar for Best Production Design, and she proudly held her award.

“I dreamed of this night, and I prayed for this night,” she said. “What it would mean for young people coming behind me. It just means we have opened the door. Finally, the door is wide open.”

And other winners that night ensured that the door stayed open: Ruth E. Carter’s Best Costume Design win for “Black Panther” made her the first African American to win the award, and Peter Ramsey’s Best Animated Feature win as a director of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” cemented him as the first African American to win for Animated Feature.

Other talented winners who filed through the door (and will surely keep it open for future wins) were Mahershala Ali and Regina King, who won Best Supporting Actor and Actress, respectively, and became the second pair of African American actors to win supporting role Oscars in the same year. And Spike Lee’s first Academy Award win (for Best Writing Adapted Screenplay) after a long, impressive career of at least 45 films spanning more than 30 years is an unforgettable Oscars Night moment, made iconic by his ecstatic jump into Samuel L. Jackson’s arms. Although Jordan Peele didn’t receive an Oscar as a producer of the remarkable “BlacKkKlansman,” he did become the first black producer to be nominated twice for Best Picture.

Feb. 24 also became a night of Mexican representation in Hollywood, with Alfonso Cuaron’s win for Best Director going down in the history books as the fourth consecutive Best Director win for a Mexican director. In fact, he is the fifth Mexican director in the last six years to win the prestigious award and the first Mexican-born director to win both Best Cinematography and Best Director (while serving as both the cinematographer and director). And “Roma”’s win for Best Foreign Language Film made it the first Mexican film to win after Mexico scored eight nominations and (unfairly) no wins in previous years. Yalitza Aparicio also made history as the first Indigenous Mexican actress to be nominated for an Oscar, although she didn’t boast an Academy Award like Cuaron at the end of the night.

As for Asian representation, Domee Shi became the first person of Chinese descent to win an Oscar for Best Animated Short Film, and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi and Jimmy Chen became the first married couple of Asian descent to be nominated for and to win Best Documentary Feature. Although Ai-Ling Lee didn’t share in the wins, she became the first Asian American woman to be nominated for Best Sound Mixing and Best Sound Editing twice.

Even the presenters’ list reflects this absolutely-necessary-and-finally-happening diversity in Hollywood: of the 54 award show presenters, three Asian, five Latino, and 20 African American filmmakers made up for the lack of a proper host.

“I’m extremely pleased because Awkwafina’s [presenting], I’m doing it, and Constance is doing it. So we’re representing. I’m happy about that,” “Crazy Rich Asians” and “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Tiger” star Michelle Yeoh told Entertainment Tonight.

awkwafina and john mulaney academy awards Opinion: What the 91st Academy Awards meant for Hollywood diversity
Awkwafina of “Crazy Rich Asians” presents the Academy Award for Best Animated Short with comedian John Mulaney. (Photo by Chris Pizzello / Invision / AP)

But we shouldn’t be celebrating yet. April Reign, the founder of #OscarsSoWhite movement, points out that “there’s still so much work to be done.”

“Here we are in 2019. We still have never had a romantic comedy with an LGBTQ or trans couple,” Reign told the Washington Post.

Admittedly, even the historic diversity of the 91st Oscar night pointed out the very lack of diversity; the record number of African American Oscar winners in one night should far exceed seven, and there’s clearly still a starving need for award recognition for filmmakers of color.

Halle Berry is still the only African American woman to win Best Actress in a Leading Role; there is yet to be a fourth actor of Asian descent who wins an Oscar (it’s been 34 long years). No Latin American actress has ever won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. The Academy has only awarded a single female director an Oscar for Best Director.

The glass ceiling is starting to be broken, but there’s still a long vault of century-old glass that needs to be smashed. We’ll know progress is being made if every year’s Academy Awards night is more historic than the last. So let’s hope the 92nd Academy Awards in 2020 breaks even more glass ceilings.

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