Editor’s Note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
There were politics, of course. But it was, for the most part, an Academy Awards ceremony that seemed determined to be as cozy, bland and free of surprises as a stay at a suburban chain hotel (which host Jimmy Kimmel offered – along with a JetSki – to winners who kept their acceptance speeches short).
It was also an Academy Awards ceremony that was just as determined to let its audiences know that whatever passed for traditional at the Oscars has finally, irrevocably changed.
The words, “inclusion” and “diversity” were now as much a part of the ceremony soundtrack as the vintage 1930s pop tunes used to usher in the presenters.
Frances McDormand, in accepting the best actress Oscar she was all but assured of getting for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” brought what she characterized as “perspective” to the socio-political subtext of the 90th edition of Oscar Night, with two words: “Inclusion Rider.”
McDormand was referring to the clause in an actor’s contract requiring the cast and crew of a movie to be diverse in order to retain the services of the actor. She was suggesting – perhaps even demanding – that the women nominees in the audience, who she encouraged to stand in their seats, take meetings and bring ideas to Hollywood production companies. And that when they do, she implied, they remember that clause.
As much as anything could, that speech encapsulated what the movie industry was trying to put forth as its public face in 2018: That diversity and inclusion were no longer notions or promises. They were going to be whatever constituted the New Normal in Hollywood.
To be clear: things haven’t changed THAT dramatically yet. Yes, Jordan Peele’s script for “Get Out” received the first Oscar for best original screenplay ever awarded to a writer of color. And the Republic of Mexico may have been as big a winner as any movie, with Oscars going to Guillermo Del Toro for his direction of best picture winner “The Shape of Water” and the Disney-Pixar celebration of Mexican culture, “Coco” collecting Oscars for best song and best animated feature.
But we’re still waiting for the first African-American best director – and, for that matter, the second woman best director. The fact is, most of the award winners remained white, as African-American comedy stars Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish reminded the audience in their appearance as presenters.
Both women, walking out barefoot in their evening gowns and clutching their heels in what may have been the comedic high point of the evening, reassured those thinking “#OscarsTooBlack” that (in Rudolph’s words) “There are many more white people to come tonight.”
Haddish concurred, mentioning not just presenters and awardees, but also “white people with clipboards” whom she said she didn’t trust, as a black woman, because “I always wonder what they’re writing about me.” Perhaps in the minds of many, that comment alone closed off any further discussion as to who should host next year’s 91st ceremony.
Not that Jimmy Kimmel, returning for a second consecutive year as host, was any slouch at the job. Indeed, Kimmel was at his best at weaving such controversial topics as the sexual harassment allegations against disgraced mogul Harvey Weinstein into his monologues and asserting himself on the right side of women’s rights with the proper mix of decorum and humor.
He was so taken with McDormand’s speech that he thought her speech deserved an Emmy to go with the Oscar.
“I wish I were a woman,” Kimmel added. And from a “guy’s guy” among late night TV hosts, that declaration said almost everything you needed to know about Hollywood’s New Normal.