While the 2019 Oscars may have been lackluster insofar as they failed to produce any meme-able moments—aside from the best supporting actress nominee Melissa McCarthy cosplaying as Queen Anne from The Favourite alongside Brian Tyree Henry, or Keegan-Michael Key floating down from the ceiling by umbrella, à la Mary Poppins—it will be remembered for not only its potentially regrettable best picture winner but also the history-making records broken during the ceremony.
The state of the Oscars is generally understood to be somewhat of a mess. There was the #OscarsSoWhite campaign a couple of years back, which called out the Academy for its lack of nominations for people of color; and the Time’s Up initiative has taken the Academy to task for its lack of diversity, pushing for more women and people of color to be admitted into the voting body. These efforts appear to have worked to some degree, and for many nominees at the 91st Academy Awards 2019 was a record-breaking year.
This year, while women were shut out from being nominated for various filmmaking categories (the nominees for best director were all men), at the ceremony they cleaned up where they could. Domee Shi, the first woman to have directed a Pixar short film, and Becky Neiman-Cobb accepted the Academy Award for best animated short film, making sure in their speech to encourage other young girls with sketchbooks to keep drawing. Rayka Zehtabchi and Melissa Berton noted in their acceptance speech for the best documentary short subject Oscar that they were floored the Academy gave the award to Period. End of Sentence., a film about menstruation.
Only one black woman has won the Oscar for best actress (Halle Berry), four black men have won the Oscar for best actor, eight black women have won best supporting actress, and five black men have won best supporting actor (with Mahershala Ali taking home the award two times, once for Moonlight and again, last night, for Green Book). This year, Spike Lee also won his first competitive Oscar, for best adapted screenplay for BlacKkKlansman (he was nominated for best original screenplay for Do the Right Thing in 1990 and for best documentary feature for 4 Little Girls in 1998, and received an honorary award in 2016).
Previous records were made in 2017, when six African Americans won Oscars, and in 2014 and 2010, when three black artists took home Academy Awards. Just two years ago, there were six black Oscar winners across five categories, and most notably that year Ali won his first best supporting actor Oscar for his performance in Moonlight, a film that also won best picture. Ali also made history in 2017 as the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar. This year, three out of four acting awards went to actors of color. The night opened with a win from Regina King, who took home the best supporting actress Oscar for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, followed by Ali and Rami Malek for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody.
As for non-acting Oscars, only three black women have won awards in those categories. In 1984, the songwriter Irene Cara took home the best original song Oscar for “Flashdance….What a Feeling.” This year, Ruth E. Carter, who had been nominated for Oscars before, in 1993 and 1998, for her costumes in Spike Lee’s Malcolm X and Amistad, respectively, took home the best costume design Academy Award for her work on Black Panther. With this Oscar, she became the first black winner in that category. Another win for Black Panther came in the form of the best production design Oscar, which went to Hannah Beachler, who was the first African American to be nominated for that award. Both of these wins also mark the first Oscars to be won for the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
In 2013, Alfonso Cuarón was the first Mexican and first Latino to win best director. Since then, two other Mexican filmmakers—Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro—have taken home the award, and Cuarón took home his second best director statuette for Roma this year (along with two more, for best cinematography and best foreign language film, the first award of its kind to go to a Mexican film).
While the Oscars still have to do a little bit of image rehabilitation after the number of fiascos it has undergone in the past few years, the wins this year still marked milestone achievements for women of color, and hopefully leave more room for improvement in the coming years.