Academy kisses #OscarsSoWhite goodbye

The 89th Academy Awards has gained praise for its markedly diverse nominees and winners. Among the milestones were NASA hero Katherine Johnson’s standing ovation with the cast of Hidden Figures and Mahershala Ali’s win as the very first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. (Chris Pizzello/AP Photo)

There was never any doubt that the 89th Academy Awards would get political.

Stars turned up with American Civil Liberties Union ribbons pinned to their designer gowns and suits on Sunday Feb. 26, host Jimmy Kimmel made his fair share of allusions to President Donald Trump and presenter Brie Larson refused to applaud Best Actor winner Casey Affleck due to his 2008 sexual harassment allegations—but perhaps what viewers did not expect was for the ceremony to be in stark contrast to last year’s #OscarsSoWhite criticisms. 

Right off the bat, the nominations were much more diverse than in past years, with four out of the nine films nominated for Best Picture centering on the stories of marginalized individuals and the actors from those films receiving their own individual nominations. These films include Fences, Moonlight, Hidden Figures and Lion

What’s even more is that Moonlight—which tells the powerful story of a young, gay, black man in Miami—won the award for Best Picture. And who could talk about Moonlight’s win without mentioning the mix-up beginning to be known as “Envelopegate?” Many are noting the importance of the award’s hand-off from the predominately white cast and crew of La La Land to the black talent of Moonlight

But the success of Moonlight does not stop there. Mahershala Ali won the award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in the film. Ali is the very first Muslim actor to ever win an Academy Award. Moonlight writers Berry Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McCraney also won for Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) for Moonlight

During their acceptance speech McCraney called attention to the film’s groundbreaking theme. 

“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender conforming who don’t see themselves,” McCraney said. “We’re trying to show you, you and us. So thank you, thank you. This is for you.”

In addition to black men finally gaining their much-deserved respect, Sunday night was a big one for black women, as well. Actress Viola Davis became the first black woman to win the triple crown of acting: an Emmy, a Tony and now an Oscar, with her win for Best Supporting Actress for Fences

Her acceptance speech urged her peers to “exhume and exalt” the lives and stories of ordinary people. Ruth Negga, Octavia Spencer and Naomie Harris were also nominated and honored for their work. 

But perhaps the most profound moment of the night came when the stars of Hidden Figures—one of the nominees for Best Picture—presented the award for Best Documentary Feature. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae spoke of the importance of films that, “shine the spotlight on those whose names were known to only a few, but whose stories deserve to be told.” Then, surprising audience members and viewers, the trio proudly introduced Katherine Johnson, one of the three African American women whose story is finally told in Hidden Figures

“A true NASA and American hero;” Johnson is a physicist and mathematician whose contributions to NASA made America’s space dreams come true in the 1950s. Her history is finally being told and celebrated in 2017. 

This year’s nomination changes—which also include the first nominations of black filmmakers in the categories of cinematography and editing—are a direct result of the Academy’s changes to its rulebook. 

The Academy consisted of an astounding majority of white males in 2016: three-fourths of the body were male; nine-tenths were white. But after the uproar following the ceremony that year, Cheryl Boone Isaacs—the Academy’s black female president—made necessary adjustments. The Academy has added 638 new members to its voting body, has limited membership to 10 years and has made it possible for those who are not involved in new projects during that time to keep their voting rights. 

It looks as though these changes have been for the best: this year, the Academy awarded its most diverse group of winners since its creation in 1929, according to The Huffington Post. 

As always, though, there are still some ways to go when it comes to diversity at awards shows. Latin American and Asian filmmakers and actors remain wildly underrepresented at the Oscars, as well as at other awards ceremonies. 

Hopefully, Isaacs and other organization leaders will keep the changes coming.