Historic Wins, One Epic Fail at the 89th Academy Awards

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^Top Image: Alex Hibbert, left, stars as the young Chiron in Moonlight. Mahershala Ali, right, won the 2016 Academy Award as best supporting actor for his performance in the film. Moonlight won the 2016 Oscar as best picture.
Credit: © A24

It was a night of Oscar firsts on Sunday, February 26, at the 89th Academy Awards, presented at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood,California. But one of those was a first that the Academy would undoubtedly rather forget.

The awards are presented annually for outstanding achievements in filmmaking. They are supervised by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with headquarters in Beverly Hills, California. Oscars are awarded in up to 27 categories.

Last year, the Academy was criticized for the lack of diversity among its award nominees. After the Academy announced its 2015 Oscar nominees in January 2016, it was quickly noted that only white actors and actresses were nominated in the top four acting categories for the second year in a row. Until 2016, there had only been six black directors nominated for Academy Awards.

This year, a number of African Americans made history by their Oscar nominations and wins: This Sunday marked the most Oscar wins by African Americans in one night. Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, won for best picture. Jenkins was the first African American to be nominated for both best director and one of the screenplay titles for a film that was also nominated for best picture. Featuring an all-black cast, the low-budget film tells the story of a troubled gay African American youth growing up in a rough neighborhood of Miami, Florida. The film was based on the semi-autobiographical stage play In Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney. Jenkins and McCraney won the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. Mahershala Ali won as best supporting actor in the film for his portrayal of a sympathetic drug dealer. The film also received nominations for best director, best supporting actress, best cinematography, best editing, and best original score.

Of the five movies vying for the 2016 best documentary award, four were directed by black filmmakers: 13th, by Ava DuVernay, about the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States and how it perpetuates the nation’s history of racial inequality; I Am Not Your Negro, by Raoul Peck, about African American writer and civil rights activist James Baldwin; Life, Animated, by Roger Ross Williams, about a young autistic man who learns how to communicate with the “outside world” through his love of Walt Disney animated films; and O.J.: Made in America, by Ezra Edelman, about the life of former National Football League star O.J. Simpson, who was arrested for, and later acquitted of, murdering his ex-wife and her friend. Edelman won the award.

With her best supporting actress win on Sunday, Viola Davis became the first African American to win an Oscar, an Emmy Award, and a Tony Award for acting. Davis won the Oscar for her portrayal of the long-suffering wife of a sanitation worker who once dreamed of a baseball career in Fences, by the African American playwright August Wilson. Directed by and starring Denzel Washington, the film was also nominated for best picture, best actor for Washington, and best adapted screenplay.

Another notable African American film that received multiple nominations was Hidden Figures, the true story of a team of African American women mathematicians who played a vital role in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) during the early years of the U.S. space program. The film was nominated for best picture, best supporting actress for Octavia Spencer, and best adapted screenplay.

The night’s other big winner was the musical La La Land. Starring Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, the film tells the story of a jazz pianist who falls in love with an aspiring actress in Los Angeles, California. It was tied with All About Eve (1950) and Titanic (1997) as the most nominated film ever, with 14 nominations. Damien Chazelle won as best director for the film and Stone won as best actress. The film also won for best cinematography, best original song, and best production design. Casey Affleck won the best actor award for his performance in the drama Manchester by the Sea as a man who is asked to take care of his teenaged nephew after the boy’s father dies.

^Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling star in the musical La La Land. Stone won the 2016 Oscar as best actress for her performance in the film as an aspiring actress.
Credit: © Summit Entertainment

The night’s historical significance was nearly overshadowed by an embarrassing blunder at the end of the evening when the best picture Oscar was announced. Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty, who starred together in Bonnie and Clyde (1967), presented the award. Beatty was given an envelope containing the name of the winner of the best actress award and the film for which she won, instead of the title of the film that won for best picture. Dunaway announced the winner as La La Land. As the cast of La La Land gathered on stage to celebrate winning the evening’s biggest award, the film’s producers Jordan Horowitz and Marc Platt were approached by a man wearing a headset. “I’m sorry, there’s a mistake,” Horowitz announced. “Moonlight, you guys won best picture.” Platt added: “This is not a joke. They read the wrong thing.”

Hosting the awards for the first time, comedian Jimmy Kimmel, of the late-night television talk show “Jimmy Kimmel Live!,” joked “Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this,” referring to the TV host’s infamous Miss Universe gaffe in 2015 when he announced the wrong contestant’s name as winner. As the stunned cast of Moonlight made its way to the stage, the evening ended in confusion, but apparently with no hard feelings. “God, I love Moonlight so much,” Oscar winner Stone said later backstage. “I was so excited for Moonlight.

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