One year of good films with black actors and themes does not eradicate decades of invisibility and lopsided representation – but several big wins at Sunday’s Screen Actors Guild Awards demonstrated some positive steps forward in Hollywood’s quest for more diversity.
Several actors of color took home awards at this year’s ceremony – and unlike last year, it was the film side offering up the night’s biggest inclusive wins. “Fences” took home awards for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, “Hidden Figures” won for its cast, and Mahershala Ali won for his supporting role in “Moonlight.”
As a result, many of the night’s top acceptance speeches drove home the message of inclusion and acceptance.
Viola Davis, who won for Female Actor in a Supporting Role for “Fences,” said that the increase in black acting nominees and wins were not a response to “Oscars So White” but because of merit.
“I think that every nominee from Naomie Harris to Octavia Spencer to ‘Hidden Figures’ to ‘Fences’ to ‘Moonlight to Mahershala Ali got there because they deserved to be there. They’re not there because of the color of their skin. They put in the work,” she told reporters backstage. She also emphasized that even after the Oscars aired, the trend would not go away, that inclusion had to be a way of life.
“We’re all part of the narrative. All of our stories have to be told. Art has to indeed reflect life in our culture. The people are going to demand it. We’re no longer ‘The Brady Bunch’ any more. We’re ‘Black-ish,’ we’re ‘Fresh Off the Boat,’ we’re ‘Jane the Virgin,’ we’re ‘Stranger Things.’”
She also noted that seeing someone like her is still absent in leading roles, “when you’re darker than a paper bag,” she said, referring to the racial discrimination that gave certain privileges to black people who were lighter than a brown paper bag.
Taking home the award for Outstanding Cast in a Motion Picture was “Hidden Figures,” a biopic about three female African-American mathematicians who worked at NASA in the 1960s.
“This film is about unity,” said Taraji P. Henson, on behalf of the cast on stage. She called the movie’s real-life mathematicians “American heroes.”
“They didn’t complain, they focused on solutions,” she said. “This story is about what happens when we put our differences aside and come together as a human race. We win. Love wins. Every time.”
Backstage, Octavia Spencer pointed out that “Hidden Figures” doing well at the box office was a good sign that “people are hearing the message” about underrepresented groups. Janelle Monae also emphasized a message of inclusion. “The colors of us, the nuances of us that make us all unique represents a shared humanity.” She then cheekily quoted Kevin Costner and added, “We all pee the same color.” She also dedicated her award to Mary Jackson, the first black engineer at NASA.
Mahershala Ali, who won the Supporting Actor award for his role in “Moonlight,” gave an impassioned speech about his role in the film and drew a parallel about acceptance in his own life.
“You see what happens when you persecute people; they fold into themselves,” he said, referring to his character Juan and how tolerance could have helped him.
The actor also revealed a more personal story. “My mother is an ordained minister. I am a Muslim. She didn’t do backflips when I told her… I was able to see her, and she was able to see me. We love each other. The love has grown. That [other] stuff is minutia. The love is what’s important.”
Although individual TV awards went to white actors, at least the ensemble wins for “Orange Is the New Black” and “Stranger Things” injected a bit of color for the casts at large.
The fact that diversity and inclusion are still topics that need to be addressed on a telecast and to reporters means that it has yet to become the Hollywood norm. The message from the night’s winners: To take away from these awards is that unity still must be achieved, and resting on the laurels of an award show would mean complacency.
Now, it’s the Academy Awards’ turn. As Viola Davis said, when addressing Feb. 27, the date of this year’s Oscars, “And now what?”