Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on
 

Oscars give black artists their rightful place

By Gene Seymour
March 3, 2014 -- Updated 1911 GMT (0311 HKT)
<strong>Best picture:</strong> "12 Years a Slave" Best picture: "12 Years a Slave"
HIDE CAPTION
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
2014 Oscars: Winners
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: Oscar wins like "12 Years a Slave" show black artists here to stay in Hollywood
  • He says Lupita Nyong'o and Darlene Love both drew rousing ovations
  • He says ceremony otherwise uneventful; Degeneres a cozy host, despite dig at Minnelli
  • Seymour: Oscars don't usually leave a trace, but "12 Years" could make this one different

Editor's note: Gene Seymour is a film critic who has written about music, movies and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and The Washington Post.

(CNN) -- When, in 2002, Denzel Washington and Halle Berry won both lead-acting honors at the Academy Awards, pundits and spin doctors were anxious to declare that the Oscars had achieved a great black apotheosis.

They were off by, well, 12 years,

As in "12 Years a Slave," which won three Oscars at Sunday night's ceremony. These included best picture, a prize many believed would go to its closest competitor, the space thriller "Gravity" -- a film that did win seven Oscars of its own Sunday night, including one for its director, Alfonso Cuaron.

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

And though "Slave's" British director Steve McQueen missed out on becoming the first black filmmaker to win for best director, it seemed altogether appropriate for him to have had the last word with best picture during a ceremony more auspicious for African-American talent than any of its predecessors.

Whether it was the thunderous ovation that greeted Lupita Nyong'o as she accepted the best supporting actress prize for "12 Years a Slave," or the rousing reception that veteran pop vocalist Darlene Love received for her spontaneous a capella chorus of "His Eye is on the Sparrow" as the documentary "20 Feet from Stardom" received the best documentary prize, there was a sense that in the variety of awards and recognition, black artists in film were no longer announcing their arrival. They were there to stay.

This prospect gets further context in a year that also saw the release of two commercially successful films, "Fruitvale Station" and "Lee Daniels' The Butler," that both emerged from and further stimulated the ongoing transition in America's racial dialogue.

And if there was any doubt as to the significance of this night's milestones, it was emphatically erased by the appearance of 87-year-old Sidney Poitier, who, though frail and struggling to speak, nonetheless accepted a sustained standing ovation from the audience as he leaned on Angelina Jolie for support. He was there to mark the 50th anniversary of his groundbreaking win of the 1963 best actor Oscar for "Lilies of the Field."

He and Jolie presented screenwriting honors, one of which went to John Ridley, whose win for best adapted screenplay for "12 Years a Slave" made him only the second African-American to win a writing Oscar.

McConaughey: I did not expect it
Jennifer Lawrence: 'I tripped on a cone'
Lupita's Oscars speech the best ever?
Hollywood heartthrob's first Oscars
Jennifer Lawrence: 'I tripped on a cone'

These were the most momentous aspects of a ceremony that otherwise cruised along in a laid-back groove, conspicuous in its relative dearth of snarkiness, thanks mostly to this year's host, Ellen DeGeneres, a daytime-TV-certified Nice Person, whose female impersonator joke at Liza Minnelli's expense early in the proceedings was about as nasty as things got all night.

And while Minnelli did not look amused at first, she seemed an enthusiastic participant in the evening's most "tweet" running gag: the "selfie" riff. DeGeneres spread it out into the audience, drawing Meryl Streep and everybody else in the first rows into a selfie that quickly set a retweet record, and apparently temporarily broke Twitter's platform. It all seemed very baggy-sweater cozy and fun to watch.

But would it be, well, snarky to suggest that the camera phone she was springing into action was provided by Samsung, one of the broadcast's biggest sponsors?

It's tough playing the spoilsport for what some might consider the sweetest Academy Awards ceremony in years -- and others might call the most cloying. There was little opportunity for embarrassment as the evening clipped cheerfully along, and even the disorienting sight of 81-year-old Kim Novak's facelift was mitigated by best actor winner Matthew McConaughey's courtly grace as they presented the animation prizes.

One remembers what novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler once wrote about the awards back in 1949 -- that they are a manifestation of Hollywood's "chronic case of spurious excitement over absolutely nothing."

He's still not altogether wrong. Any Academy Awards ceremony can seem like a water drop on the linoleum counter of history. It leaves no stain, no residue. It just evaporates.

But thanks to "12 Years a Slave," maybe not this one.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2012 GMT (0412 HKT)
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0313 GMT (1113 HKT)
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
November 21, 2014 -- Updated 0121 GMT (0921 HKT)
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
November 20, 2014 -- Updated 2256 GMT (0656 HKT)
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 2011 GMT (0411 HKT)
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1519 GMT (2319 HKT)
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
November 19, 2014 -- Updated 1759 GMT (0159 HKT)
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 0258 GMT (1058 HKT)
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
November 18, 2014 -- Updated 2141 GMT (0541 HKT)
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1216 GMT (2016 HKT)
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 0407 GMT (1207 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
November 17, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
America will have its hands full in the Middle East for years to come, writes Aaron David Miller.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 1617 GMT (0017 HKT)
Gene Seymour says it's part of our pioneering makeup to keep exploring the universe
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Sally Kohn says the U.S.-China agreement to cut carbon emissions is a big deal, and Republicans should take note.
November 15, 2014 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the Obamacare advisor who repeatedly disses the electorate in a series of videotaped remarks reveals arrogance and cluelessnes.
November 14, 2014 -- Updated 2200 GMT (0600 HKT)
Reggie Littlejohn says gendercide is a human rights abuse against women, with bad consequences for nations.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1657 GMT (0057 HKT)
The massing of Russian forces near Ukraine only reinforces the impression that Moscow has no interest in reconciliation with the West, writes Michael Kofman.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1455 GMT (2255 HKT)
It takes a real man to make the moves on the wife of the most powerful man in the biggest country. Especially when the wife is a civilian major general.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1347 GMT (2147 HKT)
Proponents of marriage equality LGBT persons have been on quite a winning streak -- 32 states and the District of Columbia now allow same-sex marriage.
November 13, 2014 -- Updated 1358 GMT (2158 HKT)
It has been an eventful few weeks for space news.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 2014 GMT (0414 HKT)
It's too early to write the U.S. off, and China's leaderships knows that better than anyone, argues Kerry Brown.
November 12, 2014 -- Updated 1821 GMT (0221 HKT)
"How can Jon Stewart hire you to be 'The Daily Show''s senior Muslim correspondent when you don't even know how to pronounce Salaam Al-aikum?!"
ADVERTISEMENT