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A Colorful Night At The Oscars. More Of The Same To Come?

The Mexico-born, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o was one of several artists of color to collect awards during Sunday's Oscar ceremony. She won the accolade for best supporting actress.
Kevin Winter
Getty Images
The Mexico-born, Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o was one of several artists of color to collect awards during Sunday's Oscar ceremony. She won the accolade for best supporting actress.

It might have been the most diverse Academy Awards telecast in recent memory.

Sunday night's broadcast was capped by British director Steve McQueen accepting a best picture Oscar for his film 12 Years a Slave — the first film directed by a black man to earn that honor. His emotional acceptance speech was dedicated to "all of the people who endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today."

Right before McQueen took the stage, Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón became the first Latino to win best director honors for Gravity, a film that won seven Oscars. Songwriter Robert Lopez became the first Filipino-American to win a best song Oscar for co-writing the hit Let It Go from Frozen — also becoming one of only 12 people to have won Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe honors.

Writer John Ridley's screenwriting Oscar for 12 Years a Slave made him the second black man to win such an honor. And one of the film's co-stars, the Mexico-born Kenyan actress Lupita Nyong'o, earned a standing ovation for her best supporting actress win, as she told the crowd her victory was proof that "no matter where you're from, your dreams are valid."

All this, at a ceremony that drew a whopping 43 million viewers, hosted by openly gay comic Ellen DeGeneres, in which the top two male acting categories were won by the stars of Dallas Buyers' Club — a film about the early spread of the AIDS crisis.

But amid all the celebration of diversity in a movie industry where such notions too often seem a second thought, a new concern arises: Can this progress last?

I ask because I remember an interview with actor Louis Gossett Jr., who spoke to CBS News in 2002 — just before the Academy made history by handing best actor and best actress honors to two black people in the same year: Denzel Washington and Halle Berry.

Gossett had made Oscars history of his own as the first black man to win a best supporting actor award for 1982's An Officer and a Gentleman. And in the 2002 interview he said winning the highest award in film hadn't really changed much for him — or the industry.

"I'm not going to go backward," he said then. "But after the Oscar, I got no work."

And for people of color, changes in the film business haven't happened overnight.

When Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Oscar — as best supporting actress in 1939's Gone With the Wind — it was a landmark moment. But more than 20 years would pass before another black person won a major Academy Award for acting, until Sidney Poitier became the first black man to win best actor for 1963's Lilies of the Field.

And more than 50 years passed before another black woman won in McDaniel's category, when Whoopi Goldberg took the honor for 1990's Ghost.

Recent history has been kinder. Black actresses Mo'Nique and Octavia Spencer won Oscars for supporting roles in 2009 and 2011. And since Washington's win, both Jamie Foxx and Forest Whitaker have also won Oscars as best actor.

Still, every time a racial or ethnic barrier is broken in Hollywood, epitomized by who gets to carry home that little gold statuette, the fear arises that instead of an opened door we are seeing a tiny exception.

But what brings hope this year isn't just the number of victories. It's where those victories occurred.

Directors, screenwriters and songwriters like McQueen, Cuarón and Lopez have much more power to shape the storytelling in major motion pictures than any but the most powerful actors. Diversity among their ranks helps ensure that stories have a wider vision from the moment they are conceived, which can lead to more diversity when awards season rolls around again.

There are quibbles left. It will be nice to see a black-centered film do well that isn't centered on poverty, maids or slavery. And there are too few Hispanic or Latin-American contenders and winners still.

But it's likely creators like McQueen and Ridley will put the extra juice that comes from their Oscar wins to good use, giving Hollywood more stories that fall outside the usual notions of hero and villain, victim and victor.

That's the best way to ensure Sunday's wins are a first step, rather than another blip of achievement that takes years to repeat.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.