So many awards are handed out before the Oscars, with strong favourites emerging on the basis of those wins, that the Academy Awards ceremony has today become largely predictable. The same people who garner those earlier awards inevitably end up winning Oscars. Thus, Matthew McConaughey won Best Actor for Dallas Buyers Club, despite rumours that long-denied Leonardo DiCaprio would pose a threat with his work on The Wolf of Wall Street. Cate Blanchett was anointed Best Actress for Blue Jasmine, despite worries that her association with this Woody Allen film would prove too scandalous, after the fresh round of sexual abuse charges by Allen’s daughter. As widely predicted on the basis of his win at the Director’s Guild of America, Alfonso Cuarón was declared Best Director for Gravity. And 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, despite predictions of an upset by Gravity. There was no way a 3-D sci-fi spectacular was going to beat a noble-minded account of slavery in the antebellum South. But despite the lack of surprise, history was made. 12 Years a Slave was the first film made by a black to receive the Academy’s highest honour: Best Picture. It was fitting that one of the presenters was Sidney Poitier, America’s first black star.
The first instance of the largely white Academy acknowledging the diversity in the nation was when Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to be nominated for an Oscar. (She went on to win, for Gone With the Wind.) And this year, Lupita Nyong’o and John Ridley picked up two major awards for their work on 12 Years a Slave. Even the traditional address by the president of the Academy for Motion Picture Arts and Sciences upheld this trend, coming as it did from the first black woman to hold the position. And that wasn’t all. It is a sign of how far the Academy Awards have come that its 86th edition was hosted by a lesbian. Ellen DeGeneres has hosted earlier, in 2007, but this year she made an explicit quip about her sexual orientation during her opening monologue. And one of the major contenders of the evening was Dallas Buyers Club, which features several gay characters and which won Best Supporting Actor for Jared Leto’s widely acclaimed work as a transgender AIDS patient. These are important signposts in spreading the message of tolerance because, unlike festivals like Cannes or Berlin that award artier films that are seen mostly by a niche audience of cinephiles, the Oscars recognise mainstream cinema, seen by millions worldwide. Despite (rightful) complaints that the Academy, along with Hollywood, should be doing a lot more to further the cause of the minorities, this year’s awards are at least a sign of how much better things are today.