I covered the Academy Awards on the red carpet in person in 1986. It was the year of the Spielberg-directed version of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple,” a film with 11 nominations, Oprah and so many Black stars that it was practically “The Black Panther” of its day.
Many thought the 58th Oscars would be diversity’s breakthrough year. But it wasn’t to be.
All those nominations, and it was shutout. Zero wins.
I remember being at the Governor’s ball afterward and seeing Winfrey and other cast members looking flabbergasted.
Fast forward to 2018 and the 90th Oscars, and the evolution is finally taking hold across the board.
Begin with Guillermo del Toro’s fabulous tale that – in an effort to save an amphibious god tortured in a government lab – brings together a mute woman, her gay neighbor, an African-American co-worker and a foreigner who happens to be a doctor and spy.
Don’t despair. It’s really a fantasy date-night movie with multiple love scenes.
In fact, love is the message.
It had me at “glub-glub.”
If you’re an “other,” regardless of species, this is a movie that will give you hope and speak to your heart. That’s about the best lesson a movie can give us in these xenophobic and fear-mongering times.
“The Shape of Water” may be the shape of things to come as Oscar’s night of diversity saw historical precedents such as the first African-American Oscar winner in original screenplay (Jordan Peele, “Get Out”), and the first film winner where the main character is a transgender actress (“A Fantastic Woman” featuring Daniela Vega, winner of Best Foreign Language Film).
Powered by #TimesUp, the evening had warrior/victim Ashley Judd with my vote for bumper-sticker phrase of the night: “Equality, Diversity, Inclusion, Intersectionality.”
But it was Francis McDormand, Best Actress winner for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” who got the crowd roaring when she had all the women winners and nominees stand to be acknowledged to let powers that be know the sheer amount of talent in the room with movies and stories to tell.
McDormand’s call to action was in uttering the phrase that pays, “inclusion rider.” It was a not-so-subtle hint to studios and producers to add contract language that makes diversity a requirement for hiring on future projects.
Affirmative action? No, just good business sense in a modern world.
After prior years’ complaints that the Oscars and the Academy were too White, this was a more inclusive Oscars. Comedian Tiffany Haddish even joked, “Are the Oscars too Black now?”
Black. Latino. LGBTQ. Women. Even the diverse Asian-American communities were visible in the mix with winners Robert Lopez (a Filipino American Brooklynite) and his wife, Kristen Anderson-Lopez, winning Best Original Song for “Remember Me” from “Coco”) and presenters such as Star Wars franchise player Kelly Marie Tran and Kumail Nanjani, a nominee for original screenplay for “The Big Sick.”
Nanjani, a Pakistani-American from Iowa, presented with Lupita Nyong’o, a previous Best Supporting Actress winner of Kenyan-Mexican descent. They both spoke directly about the impending DACA deadline hanging over the heads of dreamers.
“Like everyone in this room and everyone watching at home, we are dreamers,” Nyongo told the worldwide audience. “Dreams are the foundation of Hollywood, and dreams are the foundation of America.”
Nanjani added, “To all the dreamers out there, we stand with you.”
But it was del Toro accepting the Oscar for Best Picture who provided the real hope for the night.
“I am an immigrant,” del Toro said proudly. But he’s also a filmmaker who travels to different countries because of his work, and said he lives in a world of his own making. “The greatest thing our art does and our industry does is to erase the lines in the sand when the world tells us to make them deeper.”
It’s a world without walls, one that doesn’t define natives and foreigners as “us and them,” but as one.
It’s a truth Del Toro discovered while following his art.
On Oscar night, he passed along his best advice as a moviemaker and humanitarian.
“Everyone who is dreaming of a parable, of using fantasy to tell their stories about the things that are real in the world today, you can do it,” del Toro said. Then he referred to any perceived barriers in the film industry, and reached out. “This is a door. Kick it open and come in.”
It was an Oscar-winning invitation to inclusion, asking us all to take a deep breath and keep dreaming – and not just at the movies.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. His writes for the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund at http://www.aaldef.org/blog. Follow him on Twitter @emilamok.