Oscar winners and presenters use platform to discuss larger issues

Politically infused Academy Awards leaves viewers talking


Oscars presenters and award winners used their stage time to shine light on issues ranging from global warming and campus rape to racial diversity at the awards show itself, in what was a politically infused 88th Academy Awards on Sunday night.

From host Chris Rock’s opening monologue about the lack of black nominees, all the way to “Spotlight” producer Michael Sugar’s plea for the Vatican to end child sexual abuse during the final acceptance speech of the night, Sunday’s Oscars left people talking about more than just Leonardo DiCaprio finally winning Best Actor or “Mad Max” taking home six awards.

The most prevalent issue discussed at the Oscars was the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. For the second straight year, no actors of color were nominated for any leading or supporting awards, male or female.

Some black celebrities boycotted the ceremony, such as director Spike Lee and actor Will Smith. There was even a protest outside the Dolby Theater led by Rev. Al Sharpton.

The tension may have even affected the ratings – as Sunday was the third lowest rated Academy Awards show in history.

Ben Koford, a freshman civil engineering major, said he was upset over the lack of racial diversity amongst the nominees.

“I feel like there is a bit of separation between white culture and black culture in society, so when it comes to these award shows, they are generally created for a white audience and overall just appeal to white culture,” he said. “I think black actors should be getting more recognition at the Oscars because they have similar levels of impact on culture as many white actors do.”

And Rock did not hide from controversy, dedicating his entire 10-minute opening monologue to the topic and bringing up the lack of diversity with jokes throughout the night.

Rock called the Oscars the “the white People’s Choice Awards” and said Hollywood is racist, citing a lack of opportunities for black actors and actresses. He also poked fun at those who boycotted, saying that 2016 is the first Oscars boycott because black people had “real” things to protest in the 1960s, and that Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith, who did not attend in protest, wasn’t invited anyway.

Kushal Bhardwaj, African American Studies professor and a UB Athletics academic adviser, applauded Rock for handling the pressure of hosting.

“Chris Rock was put in a very unique position as an entertainer,” he said. “After years of racial backlash happening in society, from bigoted presidential candidates to what we see on TV, as we move towards inclusion we need to come to the table and speak our minds. Chris Rock hit that dead on the nail.”

Bhardwaj said Rock’s monologue could help start more discussion about diversity issues.

“We laugh because things are funny and we laugh at things because they’re true,” he said. “The most awkward and delayed stuttered laughs we heard during Chris Rock’s monologue, maybe after those laughs we can take a better look at ourselves. Not just as an Oscars committee but as a representation of our nation as a whole.”

After five previous nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio finally won his long-awaited Oscar for Best Actor. DiCaprio won his award for the film “The Revenant,” which also landed Alejandro G. Iñárritu the award for best director.

Professor Bhardwaj said that “The Revenant” speaks to the cultural divide in America.

“It is strangely problematic that so many black artists don’t get the chance to be in that organic survival story like Tom Hanks and ‘Castaway’ or Leo and ‘The Revenant,’” he said.
“The type of survival stories that the Oscar crowd likes are urban survival stories, the problem is in the questions we ask. What type of black people are palatable? What type of black people do we like? Rapping like N.W.A. or boxing like ‘Creed,’ even stellar performances seem to still not get the kind of notification of other movies.”

Still, some students were just happy for DiCaprio, as many felt it was long over due. Jemy Chen, a sophomore electrical engineering major, said he was also pleased that DiCaprio finally won.

“He’s a well deserved actor – to be awarded and recognized for his effort is something many of us hoped to see,” Chen said.

Even DiCaprio used his platform to discuss issues, as he highlighted climate change in his acceptance speech. DiCaprio said filming for “The Revenant” had to move to the “southern most tip of the world” just to find snow and that “we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating” to end climate change.

And there were several other political moments as well.

Prior to the final awards of the night, Lady Gaga sang her song “Til It Happens To You” that she wrote for “The Hunting Ground,” a documentary about sexual assaults on college campuses. She was accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden and victims of sexual assault. They encouraged viewers to take the pledge to report any act of sexual assault and to not be a bystander.

“Til It Happens to You” lost to Sam Smith’s “Writing On The Wall” from the most recent James Bond movie.

“Spotlight” was awarded best picture, which depicted The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal. Those who worked on the film used their time on stage to advocate for the power of investigative journalism and to call upon the Vatican and Pope Francis to end any abuse in the Catholic Church.

Max Kalnitz is an arts staff writer and can be reached at arts@ubspectrum.com