NEW YORK – What was missing from the Academy Awards turned out to be the issue that could not be ignored on the night trophies were handed out.
The lack of nonwhite contenders for major acting awards this year became a focus on the day Oscar nominations were announced. Hollywood’s commitment to reflecting the nation’s diversity, and its sensitivity to how these issues are perceived, could not be missed on Sunday’s show — from the opening joke on.
Host Neil Patrick Harris put it right on the table. “Tonight, we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — excuse me, brightest,” he said.
It drew a knowing laugh, and no small amount of parsing.
Was Harris tweaking Hollywood for an embarrassing shortcoming? Or was he making fun of the people who have raised it as an issue of concern?
Obviously, the Oscars are an entertainment program and hosts are expected to make jokes, said Eric Haywood, a writer on Fox’s hit drama “Empire.” Yet jokes can also make people feel that their concerns are not being taken seriously, he said.
“As it stands, the joke is likely to be reduced to a meme, which the Academy is in no way obligated to address and can easily dismiss,” said Robert Jones, a Brooklyn writer and creator of the social justice blog, Son of Baldwin. “It is, after all, just a joke, right?”
Another knowing line from Harris came when he praised actor David Oyelowo, who played Martin Luther King Jr. in the movie “Selma” but was passed over for an acting nomination. Harris asked Oyelowo to stand and the audience applauded.
“Oh, sure,” Harris said. “Now you like him.”
Oyelowo was arguably involved in the emotional high point of the show. The movie’s anthem, “Glory,” by Common and John Legend, won the Oscar for best song shortly after the two musicians performed it. A camera cut to Oyelowo as the song was being sung and his face was stained with tears.
Haywood saw references to Oscar moments on Twitter Sunday night but had no personal knowledge of them. He wasn’t watching. Being in the entertainment business, he usually tunes in. This year, he participated in a boycott of the Oscars ceremony by some black viewers that was organized through the Twitter hashtag #OscarsSoWhite.
That hashtag appears to have been started by a friend of Haywood’s, Washington lawyer April Reign, according to Twitter, and was the gathering place for a steady stream of commentary on Hollywood’s lack of diversity.
There have been some 140,000 mentions of the hashtag since the day nominations were announced, according to Topsy. The number of mentions peaked that day and the hashtag became popular again Sunday night.
The Sunday night audience of 36.6 million people was down 16 percent from the 43.7 million viewers who watched in 2014, the Nielsen company said. Nielsen had no immediate breakdown of Oscar viewership by ethnicity.
Haywood said he was glad the issue was brought to the fore.
“Change comes very slowly,” he said. “I don’t expect any sort of radical change to the status quo from one year to the next. My hopes are not too high for anything to happen too quickly. By the same token, it doesn’t hurt for people to raise their voices.”
To some viewers, the Academy Awards made it a specific point to emphasize diversity during the show, from Harris noting Oyelowo in the audience to making Oprah Winfrey a joke target.
Nowhere was the effort more evident than in the awards presenters, who included Terrence Howard, Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Winfrey, Oyelowo, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart, Eddie Murphy, Lupita Nyong’o, Zoe Saldana and Octavia Spencer.
Meryl Streep stood and cheered when Patricia Arquette, in her acceptance speech for best supporting actress award, made a ringing declaration in favor of equal rights and pay for women.
Her elaboration backstage, however, struck some who heard about it as pitting groups against each other.
“It’s time for all the women in America and all the men that love women, and all the gay people, and all the people of color that we’ve fought for to fight for us now,” Arquette said backstage, leading some critics to wonder if her call for wage equality was for white women only.
Harris’ apparently tongue-in-cheek assignment of actress Octavia Spencer to watch the “lock box” of his Oscars prediction struck some people online as demeaning: Even as a joke, assigning a black woman to the task, supervised by two white actors, may have been tone deaf. A spokeswoman for Spencer did not immediately return a request for comment on Monday.
The line, coming from one of Hollywood’s most prominent liberals, seemed shocking.
“Who gave this son of a bitch his green card,” actor Sean Penn said, announcing the win for “Birdman” as best picture, directed by Mexican-born Alejandro Inarritu.
A slur? No, Inarritu said backstage that he and Penn are friends and the reference to the document that confers residency status to immigrants was an example of the rough sense of humor they share. “I found it hilarious,” he said.
All’s good, said Penn’s publicist, Mara Buxbaum, on Monday.
“As Inarritu said, they are indeed great friends,” she said. “Sean Penn is currently in Haiti with President Clinton. He is not available for an interview.”