There’s nothing like getting off a plane and finding out that Lupita Nyong’o won an Oscar. That was my experience last night, flying into Los Angeles in the middle of the ceremony, only to see my Twitter account overflowing with tweets celebrating her talent, her beauty, and her sweeping sky blue dress reminiscent of air. Rushing to a friend’s house to catch a recorded version, I couldn’t wait to witness this victory, and many others.
It was a night of many firsts. Alfonso Cuaron became the first Latin American director to win Best Director for Gravity, a film of great risks and artistic experimentation involving one woman’s battle to survive in space. Steve McQueen also became the first black director to win for Best Picture with 12 Years A Slave, which didn’t take home as many trophies as Gravity, but still won for Best Adapted screenplay, Best Supporting Actress, and Best Picture.
However, the biggest victory for the film and for McQueen, may be the recent announcement that Solomon Northup’s book and the film will be distributed to high schools, a wish and request that McQueen voiced numerous times since the film’s release. The combination of his historic win with its addition to public schools might signal a critical merging of art and social need, showing that films can go beyond the box office to actually usher in changes in policy and thinking.
In one of the most beautifully delivered Oscar speeches, Lupita Nyong’o said: “No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” I could feel her humility and excitement through the screen. Her rise to stardom has captivated and inspired people around the world, and I only hope that she continues to land roles that match the level of talent and passion that she displayed in 12 Years A Slave.
Also, her dresses are awesome, but she’s an actress first and I’ll be celebrating even more when I find out about her next lead role.
But while there were many victories last night, there were also some omissions that became all the more evident as the night went on. Shots of actors sitting in the audience become interesting when some of those actors should be nominated for an award. This was the case with Michael B. Jordan, who anchored the powerful independent film, Fruitvale Station, about slain bay area man Oscar Grant. He seemed out of place because he wasn’t nominated, and that was a bit unnerving. Yet, considering the recent “Diversity Gap” infographic detailing that 91% of past Best Actor Oscar winners have been white, it’s not surprising.
And, that wasn’t the only strange moment. As Ellen spouted off jokes aimed at Somali actor Barkhad Abdi, I couldn’t help but think about the recent news that he was only paid a paltry $65,000 for his role in the $55 million film Captain Phillips and what it means when Hollywood films and producers betray and exploit the international talent that brings them notoriety and recognition. That seems to be the situation in Abdi’s case—he recently won a BAFTA for the role. Does Slumdog Millionaire ring a bell?
That awkwardness aside, Pharell’s performance of the Despicable Me 2 Best Song nominee “Happy,” had me dancing in my seat, and pregnant Kerry Washington’s willingness to eat pizza ordered by Ellen and brought by a seemingly real deliver man, was awesome. Kevin Spacey’s easy slippage into House of Cards’ Devil-incarnate Frank Underwood was almost scary, while Steve McQueen’s nervous, sincere speech, and giddy jumping after winning Best Picture, showed just how human he was. To top it off, seeing Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first African American Female President of the Academy take the stage, showed that there just might be hope for inclusion of women and people of color in coming years.
Last night’s Oscars were enjoyable because things looked and felt different than previous years. Between the occasional slurred teleprompter speech and confused actor, there was Lupita Nyong’o’s brother jumping in a selfie with A-list actors, Cate Blanchett declaring that women-led films have audiences, and Alfonso Cuaron delivering a heartfelt Spanish message to his wife. It was a great mash-up of moments. Here’s to Lupita!
Nijla Mu'min is a writer and filmmaker. She writes and direct movies about black mermaids, black lesbians, black girls in-between worlds, and boys too.