At the start of the Oscars ceremony in Hollywood on Sunday night, the first crop of stars to take the stage opted to confront the elephant in the room right away: the Academy Awards has a diversity problem.
“It’s time to come alive,” sang Janelle Monáe in the show’s opening number, “because the Oscars is so white!”
Monáe was joined on stage by dancers dressed as characters from some of the black actor-led films overlooked by the Academy, including Queen & Slim, Us, and Dolemite Is My Name, which starred Eddie Murphy in a role some had tipped could see him nominated.
Instead, this year’s slate of nominees in the major acting categories was overwhelmingly white, with Cynthia Erivo (Harriet) the only actor of color to be recognized.
“Cynthia did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people that the academy got her to hide all the black nominees,” joked first presenter Chris Rock. “Cynthia, is Eddie Murphy under this stage?”
Murphy was joined by Steve Martin, both former Oscars hosts, for an introductory set of jokes.
“Chris, think how much the Oscars have changed in the past 92 years,” Martin joked. “In 1929, there was no black acting nominees. Now, in 2020, we got one.”
The pair also made reference to the fact that no women directors were nominated this year — something Natalie Portman called out on the red carpet on Sunday by wearing a cape inscribed with the names of those snubbed.
Five years ago, April Reign started the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite in reaction to all the acting nominees being white that year. While more actors of color have been nominated and won in the year’s since, this year’s list of honorees seemed to prompt much public soul-searching during Sunday’s show.
“Tonight, we celebrate all the amazing talent in this room,” Monáe told the crowd at the very start of the show. “We celebrate all the women who directed phenomenal films.”
“I’m so proud to stand here as a black, queer artist, telling stories,” she added, after a duet with Billy Porter, another black member of the LGBTQ community.
“Happy Black History Month!” Monáe said.
There were other efforts to increase the diversity on the show’s stage. In what was dubbed “a special global performance,” Idina Menzel was joined in her performance of “Into The Unknown” from Frozen 2 by other actors from around the world who had also voiced Elsa.
Actor Utkarsh Ambudkar also appeared later in the show to perform a hastily-written rap about the ceremony so far, accompanied by the musician Questlove.
“I’m here to recap the show and MC for a bunch of nominees that don’t look like me,” he rapped.
Many of the winners also made sure to raise the issue of diversity during their speeches.
When the short animated film Hair Love won its category, telling the story of a black father struggling to do his daughter’s hair, producer Karen Rupert Toliver spoke of the importance of representation.
“We have a firm belief that representation matters deeply — especially in cartoons,” she said. “Because in cartoons, that’s when we first see our movies and how we shape our lives and think about how see the world.”
Similarly, when Taika Waititi of New Zealand won for Best Adapted Screenplay for Jojo Rabbit, he dedicated his award “to all the indigenous kids in the world who want to do art and dance and write stories.
“We are the original storytellers,” Waititi said, “and we can make it here, as well.”