History

03.03.14

The Changing Color of the Oscars: '12 Years A Slave' Makes History

History was made with Steve McQueen and Alfonso Cuarón becoming the first ever black and Latino directors to win Oscars.

The lineage of black and ethnic minority award winners in the leading Oscar categories was bolstered significantly at this year's awards. Steve McQueen became the first black director to win an Oscar when 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture. In his speech he said he hoped the film would stand as a statement against the slavery which persists today. “Everyone deserves not just to survive but to live," he said. "This is the legacy of Solomon Northup.” Then McQueen, who can come across as quite intense and dour, magnificently, jumped up and down.

John Ridley, for the adapted screenplay of 12 Years, became the second black person to win in the category, after Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious. “All the praise goes to Solomon Northup,” Ridley said when he collected the Oscar in a speech noted for its brevity and bracing earnestness and feeling. “Those are his words. His life.”

Of course, one of the most emotional and sweet-tasting acting awards of the night was Lupita Nyong'o's for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Patsey in 12 Years a Slave. The audience went wild in the auditorium, and in the Oscars press room too, and most likely in many living rooms. She became the sixth black actress to have won in that category - the first was Hattie McDaniel for Gone With The Wind in 1939.

"When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid."

In her speech, Nyong'o said: "It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s. And so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance. And for Solomon, thank you for telling her story and your own."

Addressing McQueen, she said, "You charge everything you fashion with a breath of your own spirit. Thank you so much for putting me in this position, it’s been the joy of my life. I’m certain that the dead are standing about you and watching and they are grateful and so am I."

Nyong'o thanked her family, and her beloved brother Junior sitting with her, and urged any young person to pursue their dreams. "When I look down at this golden statue, may it remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid." It was an emotional speech, but a delightfully graceful, rather than unctuous and overblown, one.

For Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón became the first Latino director to win the Best Director prize. “For many of us making this film was a transformative experience,” the handsome director said, indicating towards his excellent, silvery head of hair. “For a lot of people that transformation was wisdom. For me it was just the color of my hair.”

The victories, however welcome and overdue, also shone a light on the categories where black and ethnic minority contenders still have to make significant inroads, should the Academy wish to claim it has embraced genuine and lasting diversity.

The Best Director, Cinematography and Original Screenplay categories remain ones which have featured black nominees, but never a winner.

And there have only been four black Oscar lead actor winners (Sidney Poitier, 1963, Denzel Washington, 2001, Jamie Foxx, 2004, and Forest Whitaker, 2006), and only one best actress winner (Halle Berry, 2001).