The Oscars 2016: Big Stars and Big Messages

By Scotti Morris

The Academy Awards last night served as a platform diverse social commentaries ranging across sexual assault, climate change, and the inequality among races in the entertainment industry. Chris Rock hosted the ceremony and consistently addressed the lack of diversity of this year’s nominees in the acting category, opening with a quip that the Oscars was instead “White People’s Choice Awards.”

While Rock emphasized how Black actors had not been represented in the acting categories, many other racial minorities have remained underrepresented by the Academy as well. According to Huffington Post, only nine non-white actors were nominated in the past five years. And Time reports that since 1929 only 6.4% of 1,668 acting nominations have been awarded to non-white actors. Benicio del Toro was the last Latino actor to win an award (Best Supporting) in 15 years, while only four Latino men ever have been nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role in the Academy’s history.

Rock asked the audience, “Is Hollywood racist? You’re damn right Hollywood’s racist. But it isn’t the racist you’ve grown accustomed to. Hollywood is sorority racist. It’s like, ‘We like you, Ronda, but you’re not a Kappa.’ That’s how Hollywood is.” And who can deny that? The Washington Post asserts that of the Academy’s 450-member executive branch 96% are white and 87% are men.

Yet, while the Oscars may not initiate change, the ceremony itself may provide a catalyst for progress in the entertainment industry. Lady Gaga’s performance of her nominated song “Till It Happens to You” spoke out against victim-blaming sexual assault on college campuses. As a symbol of the strength of speaking out against sexual assault, an ensemble of survivors rallied around Gaga near the end of her performance. Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won the Oscar for Best Documentary Short for her film A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness, a film that explores honor killings in Pakistan. Obaid-Chinoy told the press in her post-acceptance speech that her film had inspired legal action as “The Pakistani prime minister said he will change the law on honor killings” due to the powerful reactions to the film.

Five women took home Oscars for their work in Mad Max: Fury Road, the film that took the most statues of all the films honored. Leonardo DiCaprio emphasized environmental advocacy last night in his acceptance speech: “Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively and stop procrastinating.”

Spotlight won the top prize of Best Film, with themes of journalistic integrity and accountability for spreading the truth regarding the sexual assault in the Catholic Church.

Despite the emphasis on positive social change, some blunders occurred during the night. Sam Smith wrongfully stated he was the first openly gay man to win an Oscar, ignoring that transgender singer Anohni was not given the opportunity to perform her song “Manta Ray,” nominated for for Best Original Song.

In the end, the biggest night in Hollywood became a big night for issue advocacy. With such a large platform, those who spoke out can spark conversations about how the celebrities present in the Dolby Theatre and even we at home can be a part of enacting change.

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