The year’s Film Independent Spirit Awards were a celebration of inclusivity. “Get Out” — the first debut feature from a black writer-director to cross the $100 million box office mark — won the two top prizes, Best Feature and Best Director. Jordan Peele received a standing ovation when accepting the latter from Spike Lee. “Let’s make no mistake, I would not be standing here if it wasn’t for this man,” said Peele. In his three-decade-plus career, Lee never received a Best Director Oscar nomination; Peele will compete for the statuette tomorrow.
“This project didn’t start as a statement” on the racial disparity present in America, Peele continued. “I realized that there are people who are locked up for smoking less weed than I was smoking than I wrote the movie. And so I wanted to deliver that truth” referencing the broken criminal justice system, a theme explored by Spirit Awards Honorary Chair in her 2017 Oscar winning documentary, “13th.”
Standing ovations also went to Frances McDormand (Best Female Lead, “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”), Agnès Varda (Best Documentary, “Faces, Places”), and Chloé Zhao, writer-director of four-time nominee “The Rider.” In early January, China-born Zhao received Film Independent’s Bonnie Award, a $50,000 unrestricted grant for a mid-career female filmmaker.
Ahead of the ceremony, Netflix’s “Mudbound” was announced as the winner of the 2018 Robert Altman Award, presented to a director and cast. Backstage, director and co-writer Dee Rees expressed hope that people could see herself and her peers as “not just as women but as creators. Not as a black woman, not as a lesbian woman, but as a director…We can start to talk about the craft, we can talk about the work, not about identity of the maker.”
“Mudbound” made history by securing Rachel Morrison the first Oscar nomination for a female cinematographer (Morrison was not nominated for that Independent Spirit Award, which went to gay romance “Call Me By Your Name). The Best Editing superlative went to Tatiana S. Riegel for “I, Tonya.”
As expected, Sebastián Lelio — who hails from Argentina but directed Chile’s Best Foreign Language Film entry, “A Fantastic Woman” — took home correspondent Film Independent honors. His star, Daniela Vega, will become the first transgender actress to present at the Academy Awards.
On March 2, “A Fantastic Woman” was televised in the United Kingdom. Lelio said backstage that the broadcast garnered huge ratings and “really awakened both sides: the people that are inspired by the idea of embracing the complexity of life, and the people that think transgender people should be locked up. And I think that speaks about how urgent the conversation is, and how necessary it is that we understand that there’s no such thing as an indigenous person.”
When the film premiered at the 2017 Berlinale, the director said he was “ready to be crucified.” Yet the film has actually proved less divisive than he anticipated: “Our intention to create a film that has the capacity to generate an emotional connection worked. And I think when that channel is open — the emotional channel — then all the political ideas and the social dimension of the film can travel through that channel in a more pure and probably even more effective way.”
Spaniard Antonio Méndez Esparza won the John Cassavetes Award, presented to films made for $500,000 or less, for his tale of a single, black mother afraid of losing her son, “Life and Nothing More.” His entire cast consisted of first-time actors, including Best Female Lead nominee Regina Williams.
Best First Screenplay went to spouses Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V. Gordon. They wrote “The Big Sick” based on the harrowing start of their relationship, when Pakistani-American Nanjiani met Gordon’s Southern, white family while she was in a medically-induced coma. “There is no reward for what we went through physically and emotionally,” said Nanjiani, who also starred.
At January’s Golden Globes, men were criticized for not being vocal enough allies for the Time’s Up and #MeToo movements. Yet straight, white men took multiple opportunities at the Spirits to champion industry-wide diversity. “Ready Player One” actor Ben Mendelsohn took a moment to remind the Santa Monica audience that his co-presenter, Lena Waithe, recently became the first black woman to win an Emmy for writing on a comedy series (“Master of None”). Best Male Lead Timothée Chalamet (“Call Me By Your Name”) said that he is heartened that storytellers like Rees, Greta Gerwig (“Lady Bird”), and his director, Luca Guadagnino, have been “given the keys” to shape both the industry and the nation.
The event was hosted for the second year in a row by friends and former Broadway co-stars Nick Kroll and John Mulaney. “Yes, they are straight white guys up there onstage,” admitted Film Independent President Joe Welsh. “But they’re so smart, so attuned to where we are culturally, I’m sure in their material and their monologue they’re going to be addressing where we are.”