"Today we honor Hollywood's best and whitest. Sorry… brightest," said 2015 Academy Awards host Neil Patrick Harris, during a joke that would kick off a night of memorable moments, odd joke set-ups, and speeches that were a part of the most open, honest uses of the Academy stage in years. More than once, the night's honorees used their time on stage to promote causes that they cared about, and loudly, openly talk about some of the more controversial problems in Hollywood.
We could spend days talking about how John Travolta has a track record of being weird at Awards shows, or what our favorite actresses wore, but the buzz beyond these short-lived trends has been gravitating to the stunning speeches by award recipients throughout the night.
[The Imitation Game](movie:267965) writer, Graham Moore, gave a moving salute to young creatives struggling with thoughts of suicide or depression, urging them to "stay weird" and push forward (the speech was so moving that it's still trending on twitter right now); Common and John Legend gave a legendary, hard-hitting joint speech after winning an award for "Glory" from [Selma](movie:1041230), focusing on today's fight for racial equality; Best Supporting Actress winner Patricia Arquette received a standing ovation from honorary Mother of All Oscars and Queen of Movies, Meryl Streep, for her powerful speech on gender and closing the gendered wage gap in Hollywood; Julianne Moore, who later won Best Actress for [Still Alice](movie:1168550), hit the red carpet and the stage with strong messages about Alzheimer's; Eddie Redmayne shined with his acceptance speech for best Actor in [The Theory of Everything](movie:1000359), addressing the devastation of ALS; Suicide was mentioned more than once, with Veteran Press 1's Dana Perry mentioning her son losing his life to the act and finishing with a call to talk about it out loud; [Birdman](movie:780317) helmer Alejandro González Iñárritu gave a moving speech to creative young immigrants and called for immigration reform as he accepted the award for Best Film.
Social causes and the spread of awareness concerning horrible, yet to be cured diseases were at the height of the winners' concern last night. Those speeches rested among some of the numerous greats throughout the night, and stood out beyond the usual, scripted reassurances that anything is possible for young artists. They were personal, and they were given for a reason beyond the usual pomp and circumstance of the Hollywood spotlight.
Whether genuinely feeling empowered to speak out by their peers' speeches or spurred on by publicists that knew an activist platform is popular, the winners of this year's Academy Awards took a serious step back from the usual shoulder-patting, self-congratulating attitude of the industry - for the most part.
Celebrity activism isn't new, and in some cases misguided or hardly genuine at all. So, why this year - why now - were celebrities speaking up so loudly, so numerously and so strongly during the Academy Awards? I'd argue it was a direct response to the massive backlash the Academy received when the nominees came out. With the lack of people of color and women represented, social media ran wild with the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag. And if Neil Patrick Harris was aware enough to work it into his opening joke, you can count on the fact celebrities were also aware and wanted to respond.
Last year, social media activism finally seemed to find its legs: while "slacktivism" still ran rampant, voices that were previously unaware of the platform they had rose up and spoke out, and celebrities were a part of this. After the murder of Eric Garner, for example, celebrities practically divided themselves on their stances regarding the matter, and they were heard loudly on social media.
With this newfound courage (along with publicists that seem to have a better understanding of social media than ever before) and a real stage to stand on, several of these stars have taken to award show stages to voice their opinion. Most recently, both Pharrell and Beyonce took to the Grammy stage to stand up against racial and gender inequality at the VMAs. It was almost expected that even more stars would continue the newfound tradition of speaking out when handed a microphone.
But with these messages of power, reassurance, recuperation and hope, there is a downside: lack of understanding, personal bias, and bigotry that many celebrities don't even seem to realize they're perpetuating. Instead of talking about the incredible live performance of "Glory" and the dual speech that followed, the internet has taken to focusing on Patricia Arquette's completely demeaning backstage remarks following her speech, and Sean Penn's green card comment that accompanied his announcement of [Birdman](movie:780317)'s Best Film win.
These are very important things to focus on, don't get me wrong: being able to call out celebrities that we admire is important in cases like these. But while we make sure to call out the fouls on yesterday's show (and again, it's important to do so) we should not forget the positive endeavors made by celebrities who genuinely care about their causes, and about the fans that see their films.
We, as fans, don't have to let Sean Penn's comment go unquestioned (though this joke was confirmed to be an honest one between he and his former director), but that anger should also not overshadow the incredible speech that followed and what it meant to more than just young Mexicans. For this writer, who represents the first generation of her family born in America, it meant that I could stand up and be something great - no matter where my parents came from or who I am. This is a message that isn't repeated often enough for people of color, much less immigrant children or families like mine.
The Academy stage last night was much more than a platform for congratulations and awesome renditions of movie theme songs: it was a stage that looked back at its audience with a sense of disappointment straight from the get-go, and while films like Selma hardly took home the awards they deserved, impactful performances and speeches held the film up high so that the Academy could not ignore it.
Hollywood, like humanity, is not perfect. If it were, none of these speeches would have made the impact that they did. Beyond the gravitas, the Academy was forced to stare itself in the face last night and think about its lack of diversity, its disinterest in change, and its growing distance from the very demographic that supports it. With speeches like these, the industry's old ways are being challenged with reform and open honesty. The blinders are coming off, and in 2015, Hollywood is being challenged by its own to make changes, and fast.