’12 Years a Slave’ takes home Hollywood’s top prize and makes history

BY Ellen Rolfes  March 3, 2014 at 2:20 PM EDT
When "12 Years a Slave" won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, British filmmaker Steve McQueen became the first black man to receive an Oscar in the category. Despite the win and pushes by Hollywood to increase diversity, off screen politics about whose talent gets recognized every year have changed little. Photo by Michael Yada/Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

When “12 Years a Slave” won Best Picture at the Academy Awards, British filmmaker Steve McQueen became the first black man to receive an Oscar in the category. Photo by Michael Yada/Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences.

While “Gravity” won the most golden statuettes at the Academy Awards ceremony on Sunday, “12 Years a Slave” walked away with the evening’s top prize. As Best Picture for 2014, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded the honor for the first time to a black filmmaker, Steve McQueen, who was also nominated in the best director category.

“I dedicate this award to all the people who have endured slavery and the 21 million that still suffer slavery today,” the British director said after accepting an Oscar for his role as producer.

The film — adapted from the 1853 memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man who was kidnapped and enslaved — also won two more awards for black stars. Lupita Nyong’o won Best Supporting Actress and John Ridley took home Best Adapted Screenplay.

In another first, “Gravity” director Alfonso Cuaron won Best Director, becoming the first Latin American director to win in that category.

The politics of Hollywood was a source of humor and criticism on the stage of the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. Diversity was on the minds of several of the night’s winners, including McQueen, especially in light of questions fielded towards the director about the historic nature of his win.

“Obviously, it’s a mark of development,” he said backstage to press. “The background characters are now in the foreground and their lives are being recognized in a way, more ever than before.”

During her acceptance speech, Best Actress winner Cate Blanchett spoke out against film industry professionals “who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films with women at the center are niche experiences. They are not. Audiences want to see them, and in fact, they earn money.”

The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has taken recent efforts to increase the diversity of its members, who nominate and vote for Oscar winners. As of present though, a huge majority of its members are white, male and over the age of 50. Women and minorities make up only six percent of the more than 6,000 members.

In her second appearance as host for the Oscars, Ellen DeGeneres did not shy away from jokes about Hollywood’s diversity, or lack thereof.

“Anything can happen, so many different possibilities,” Degeneres said as she wrapped up her opening monologue. “Possibility number one: ’12 Years a Slave’ wins Best Picture. Possibility number two: You’re all racists.”

“And now please welcome our first white presenter, Anne Hathaway.” The promise of diversity, Degeneres not-so-subtly suggested, can’t get in the way of a good show.

There was more diversity than ever among the evening’s 46 presenters, with 11 black or Latino stars to announce award winners, from Tyler Perry to Sidney Poitier. Variety editor Tim Gray reported that number is much more than in previous decades. In 1973, ‘83, ‘93 and 2003, there were exactly three non-Caucasian presenters each year.

The academy continues to push for a better reflection of Hollywood’s talent among its members. “I am active in our member engagement and am seeking diverse talent domestically as well as internationally,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs — the academy’s first black president — told The Associated Press.

Membership to the academy is only offered to nominees and those who have worked in the film industry. Most members are then eligible to nominate and vote for the filmmakers, actors and movies that they think are worthy of an Oscar every year.

“It is still primarily white male, which will make sense for all the years that the academy has been in existence,” Boone Isaacs told NPR.

In 2012 and 2013, the LA Times reported that the academy invited another 423 people to join the ranks of nearly 6,100 members in order to increase the number of women and minorities represented. But those additions, the paper reported, have made a little dent in swaying the numbers or the perception that the academy is an old boys club.

“Black people especially have a long way to go” in gaining better representation, especially behind the scenes, “12 Years” screenwriter John Ridley told the LA Times. “It will take a long time to change.”