2021 Academy Awards: Socially Distanced and Socially Focused With a Renewed Emphasis on Diversity and Inclusion

Following a turbulent and chaotic year for movies, it makes sense that the 2021 Academy Awards would be different from any Oscar telecast we’d seen in the past. Eliminating much of the pomp and circumstance the ceremony is so prone to, this year’s awards telecast was a smaller, socially aware — and socially distanced — proceeding. In place of production numbers and themed film montages, the broadcast focused on personal stories and getting to know the people who were nominated and winning the coveted Oscar.

In comparison to years past, when the whiteness of the winners was the subject of much watercooler discussion, this year’s ceremony had a distinct focus on diversity and inclusion and greater acceptance for both the people working in Hollywood and all the people at home viewing their work.

In perhaps the biggest story of the night, Beijing-born filmmaker Chloé Zhao became the first woman of color — and only the second woman ever — to win the Academy Award for Best Director. 

Accepting the award from Bong Joon-Ho, who directed last year’s Best Picture, Parasite, Zhao reflected on the tradition of reciting Chinese poetry that she learned from her father as a child as one of the most important guiding principles of her life.

“There’s one that I remember so dearly, it’s called The Three Character Classics. The first phrase goes: ‘People at birth are inherently good,’ and those six letters had such a great impact on me when I was a kid. I still truly believe them today,” Zhao said. “Even though sometimes it might seem like the opposite is true, I have always found goodness in the people I meet everywhere in the world. So, this is for anyone who has the faith and courage to hold onto the goodness in themselves, and hold onto the goodness in each other, no matter how difficult it is to do that.”

In addition to helping Zhao win a historic Oscar for Best Director, her haunting and poetic film, Nomadland was also named Best Picture. Its star, Frances McDormand, won Best Actress — her third for acting after winning for 1996’s Fargo and 2017’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

In the first of her two speeches of the night, McDormand ended her thank-you’s by saying “We give this one to our wolf” and then let out a howl — a moment that likely sent many viewers to the internet to find out just what she had meant. It turns out that howl was a touching tribute to the film’s 35-year-old sound mixer Michael Wolf Snyder who died by suicide after a battle with depression in March 2021.

With her second win of the night for producing Nomadland, McDormand cemented her acclaimed acting legacy by becoming the most honored living person in Academy Awards history with a total of four Oscars, more than anyone else on the planet today.

“I have no words. My voice is in my sword,” McDormand said in her acceptance speech, referencing the classic play Macbeth. “We know the sword is our work, and I like work. Thank you for knowing that, and thanks for this.”

Following McDormand’s howl, the ceremony also had a number of other memorable and inclusive moments.

Youn Yuh-Jung, who plays the beloved maternal figure in Lee Isaac Chung’s moving coming-of-age drama, Minari, became the first Korean woman to win Best Supporting Actress in Oscar history.

In one of the most well-received acceptance speeches of the night, Youn joked, “I don’t believe in competition, but how can I win over Glenn Close? …  [all five nominees] are the winners for different movies. We can’t compete with each other. I had a little bit of luck. I’m luckier than you! Also, maybe [it’s because of] American hospitality for a Korean actor. I’m not sure!”

In the biggest surprise of the evening, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for his role in The Father over the late Chadwick Boseman for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, the presumed frontrunner leading up to the ceremony that many pundits assumed was a shoo-in for the prize. While Boseman would have been just the fifth Black Best Actor win, posthumously joining the ranks of legends such as Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Jamie Foxx, and Forest Whitaker, Hopkins’ win was also historic for a different type of inclusion: age.

At 83 years old, Hopkins now becomes the oldest actor ever to receive an acting Oscar. 

Marcus Jones of Entertainment Weekly reported that “legendary actor Henry Fonda previously held the record for oldest Best Actor winner for his role in On Golden Pond in 1982 at age 76. And the late Christopher Plummer last held the title of oldest winner in acting history for his Supporting Actor win for Beginners at age 82.”

Hopkins did not attend the ceremony. He has one previous Oscar for his iconic role as Hannibal Lecter in the classic thriller, The Silence of the Lambs.

Earlier in the evening, Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson won Best Makeup and Hairstyling for their work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, making history as the first Black women to ever win in the category. (The pair won alongside make-up artist Sergio Lopez-Rivera, who is openly gay and who becomes just the fifth member of the LGBTQ community to win in the category.)

During her acceptance speech, Neal said, “I was raised by my grandfather James Holland. He was an original Tuskegee Airman, he represented the U.S. in the first Pan Am games, he went to Argentina, he met Evita, he graduated from Northwestern University at a time that they did not allow Blacks to stay on campus, so he stayed at the YMCA. And after all of his accomplishments, he went back to his hometown in hopes of becoming a teacher. But they did not hire Blacks in the school system. So, I wanted to say thank you to our ancestors who put the work in, were denied, but never gave up. And I also stand here as Jamika and I break this glass ceiling with so much excitement for the future. Because I can picture Black trans women standing up here, and Asian sisters, and our Latina sisters, and Indigenous women. And I know that one day it won’t be unusual or groundbreaking it will just be normal.”

The night’s Best Supporting Actor Oscar went to English actor Daniel Kaluuya for his role in Judas and the Black Messiah which tells the story of Black Panther chairman Fred Hampton.

Film mogul Tyler Perry was awarded the night’s Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his work fighting racism and discrimination, amplifying Black voices in film and continually giving back to the community as a whole through his charitable efforts.

In the category of Best Live Action Short, directors Travon Free and Martin Desmond Roe won for their Netflix film, Two Distant Strangers, which tells the story of a Black man who is killed by a police officer over and over again in a desperate loop he can’t seem to escape. 

In his acceptance speech, Free explained the inspiration for the film, saying “Today, the police will kill three people, and tomorrow, the police will kill three people — and the day after that, police will kill three people, because on average, the police in America every day kill three people, which amounts to about 1,000 people per year,” adding that “those people happen to disproportionately be Black people.” 

During his acceptance speech, Free referenced writer James Baldwin, who said “The most despicable thing a person can be is indifferent to other peoples’ pain.”

“So, I just ask that you please not be indifferent,” Free said in closing. “Please don’t be indifferent to our pain.”


Related: For more recent diversity and inclusion news, click here.