In just a few hours the 88th Academy Awards will commence amid a continuing controversy over a lack of diversity among the acting nominees and in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences overall. At some point during the telecast Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs is expected to speak about the issue. She might well remind the audience of the display of diversity that occurred yesterday at the 2016 Independent Spirit Awards.
The Spirit Awards have been rightly criticized for presenting a slate of nominees that are too similar to the Oscars over the past five years or so, but that had more to do with the Academy’s tastes changing more than anything else. This year, however, the Spirits celebrated a number of films that were ignored or received less recognition then they deserved from big brother including “Tangerine,” “Carol” and “Beasts of No Nation.” By the time the afternoon was over “Spotlight” had won major honors including Best Director and Best Film, but the real story was in the acting categories.
Granted, everyone in the room knew Brie Larson would win Best Female Lead for “Room” (she’ll follow up with an Oscar win today). What was more satisfying was the fact the Spirits rewarded Idris Elba with Best Supporting Male; Elba’s “Beasts of No Nation” co-star Abraham Attah for Best Male Lead and, the best surprise of the weekend, Mya Taylor for Best Supporting Female for “Tangerine.” Taylor becomes the first known transgender actress to ever win a major film acting honor and this pundit has no problem telling you he screamed for joy when her name was announced. Taylor proceeded to give a humble, funny and powerful acceptance speech that you can watch embedded here.
There are many reasons why Elba and Taylor, in particular, were not nominated for Oscars and they are parts of the awards machine that are difficult to fix (the necessity of screeners, Netflix’s perception as streaming TV, etc.). And yet, the Spirit committees and voters got it right. That’s not too hard to ask of The Academy is it?
As for the rest of the Spirits, co-hosts Kate McKinnon and Kumail Nanjiani were much better in their taped skits than as actual hosts (although Nanjiani likely would have fared better as a solo act), but thankfully unlike many other previous emcees they didn’t disappear after the show’s first 10 min. In fact, their “Carol” spoof was so good and on point it put “SNL’s” often conservative take on gay subject matter to shame.
Film Independent and their producers also somehow found a way to get the audience to sit down before the show much earlier than usual (I’m still not sure how they did it) and had an impressive list of presenters…until Sean Penn showed up to hand out the Best Film prize. No one can dispute Penn’s charitable efforts over the years and his artistic resume, but considering the controversy over his interview with El Chapo and his embarrassing justification for it on “60 Minutes” it just seemed like a big downer in the room when he walked on stage.
That is until we walked out of the tent remembering that we witnessed history.