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The Right Side of History: Backstage at the 91st Academy Awards

“This is my sixth glass,” quipped Spike Lee, drink in hand, upon entering the press room of the 91st Academy Awards. “And you know why.” The trailblazing director of such masterworks as “Do the Right Thing” and “When the Levees Broke” had just earned an Oscar for adapting Ron Stallworth’s memoir into the acclaimed Best Picture contender, “BlacKkKlansman,” along with fellow scribes Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz and Kevin Willmott. What should’ve been a joyous victory became bittersweet at best when Peter Farrelly’s intensely divisive “Green Book” took the night’s top prize, besting a slew of titles that favored diversity and representation over old-fashioned comfort food. Lee’s film is as unsettling and immediate as Farrelly’s is reassuring and eager to please. The focus of “Green Book” is an interracial friendship between an Italian-American bouncer and the African-American pianist he’s been hired to drive on a concert tour across various southern states during the volatile 1960s. 29 years ago, Lee received his first Oscar nomination for “Do the Right Thing” in the screenplay category—and lost—while “Driving Miss Daisy,” a strikingly similar feel-good picture about an elderly white woman’s friendship with her black chauffeur, was crowned as the year’s best film.  

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“Every time somebody is driving somebody, I lose,” Lee laughed while cavorting about the press stage, which he visited in the aftermath of the telecast. “But they changed the seating arrangement.” When pressed for his thoughts on the film to which he lost the Best Picture prize, the director said, “I thought I was courtside at the Garden. The ref made a bad call.” Lee’s prolonged sipping of his drink spoke more volumes about his frustration than any fiery elaboration. Yet he still credited April Reign’s #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the efforts of former Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs in creating the path that led him to win his first competitive Oscar, just three years after he was given an Honorary Award for career achievement. He also reflected on the alarming relevance of “Do the Right Thing,” where he tackled not only racial tensions and police brutality but gentrification and global warming. I instantly flashed back to the film’s 25th anniversary screening at Ebertfest, when an audience member suggested that the events portrayed onscreen had little relation to the present. It was mere months later that Ferguson occurred—a real-life mirror image of the famous climatic sequence in Lee’s 1989 film. By ending the story of “BlacKkKlansman,” chronicling a black police officer’s infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan, with a sudden cut to the white supremacist demonstrations in modern-day Charlottesville, Lee reaffirms that racist movements are not only still active but woven into the fabric of our culture. 

“The coda of this film is where we saw homegrown red, white and blue terrorism,” said Lee. “The murder of Heather Heyer was an American terrorist act. When that car drove down that crowded street in Charlottesville, Virginia, the President of the United States did not refute, did not denounce the Klan, the alt-right, and neo-Nazis. Whether we won Best Picture or not, this film will stand the test of time being on the right side of history.” Lee told the press in attendance that he had prepared two acceptance speeches, one featuring a list of people to thank and the other, more artful draft, which he decided to go with instead. “I said to myself, ‘Self, your black ass may not be up here again, so let me go with the speech,’” the director recounted, and it’s a good thing he made that decision, since it resulted in one of most stunning monologues in recent Oscar history.

“The word today is irony,” said Lee after arriving onstage. “The date is the 24th. The month is February, which also happens to be the shortest month of the year, which also happens to be Black History Month. The year 2019, the year 1619. History, Herstory. 1619 to 2019, 400 years. 400 years our ancestors were stolen from Mother Africa and brought to Jamestown, Virginia, enslaved. Our ancestors worked the land from can’t see in the morning to can’t see at night. My grandmother, Zimmie Shelton Reatha, who lived to be 100 years young, was a Spelman College graduate even though her mother was a slave. My grandma saved fifty years of Social Security checks to put her first grandchild—she called me Spikie Poo—through Morehouse College and NYU Grad Film. N.Y.U.! Before the world tonight, I give praise for our ancestors who helped build this country and what it is today—alone with the genocide of its native people. If we all connect with our ancestors, we will have love, wisdom, and will regain our humanity. It will be a powerful moment. The 2020 presidential election is around the corner. Let’s all mobilize. Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing! You know I had to get that in there!”

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The applause from members of the press that greeted Farrelly and Nick Vallelonga, who shared Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay Oscars for “Green Book,” was conspicuously chilly when contrasted with the rapturous ovation that welcomed Lee moments later. Their film’s portrayal of the bond between Vallelonga’s father, Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), and the far more fascinating musician Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), has been blasted as “a symphony of lies” by members of the late pianist’s family. Yet Vallelonga insisted that he told the story in the precise way that Shirley had instructed, arguing that this perspective on the subject is as valid as any. 

“If you're discussing the Don Shirley family thing, that falls on me,” said Vallelonga. “Don Shirley himself told me not to speak to anyone. He told me the story that he wanted to tell. He protected his private life and all the other miraculous things about him. He's an amazing man. He told me, ‘If you're going to tell the story, you tell it from your father and me. No one else. Don't speak to anyone else. That's how you have to make it.’ He also told me not to make it until after he passed away. So I just kept my word to that man. I wish I could have reached out to Don Shirley's family. I didn't even know they really existed until after we were making the film, and we contacted his estate for music. Then the filmmakers invited them all to screenings and discussions. But I personally was not allowed to speak to his family, per Don Shirley's wishes. I'm an Italian from New York. They call that a stand-up guy.  I kept my word to the man, and that's the reason for that. But Don Shirley and my father had an amazing story together. They went on the road and changed each other, and I think that comes out. That's why the film is what it is. It's because of the both of them.”

The pro-Trump tweet from 2015 that led Vallelonga to delete his Twitter once it was unearthed a month ago was echoed in a question directed to the filmmakers about whether Tony might’ve been a supporter of the current president.

“I never thought of him as a MAGA guy,” said Farrelly. “It's a different era, and whether he would have been one of those guys, I don't know. But he was a guy who was flawed in the beginning. For a couple of months, he was in a car with a man who was completely different from him, and they got to know each other, and they realized they had a lot more in common than they thought they did starting out on this journey. The message is, ‘Talk to each other, and you'll find out we all have a lot in common.’ It's a hopeful message, because sometimes it seems like there is no hope, but there is. All we have to do is talk, and we get closer together. I know that sounds corny and like, you know, Pollyanna-ish, but it's the truth. The only way to solve problems is to talk.”

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Though Alfonso Cuarón’s widely perceived frontrunner, “Roma,” lost to “Green Book” in the Best Picture category, it did become the first Mexican nominee to win Best Foreign Film, and also picked up richly deserved honors for Best Director and Best Cinematography. Cuarón’s astonishing portrait of an indigenous maid in Mexico City who becomes a second mother to her client’s children was based on the actual woman who helped raise the filmmaker and his family during the turbulent early '70s. In his second acceptance speech of the night, Cuarón quoted French icon Claude Chabrol, who responded to a question about the New Wave by declaring, “There are no waves, there’s only ocean.” Cuarón then stressed that his fellow nominees, including Paweł Pawlikowski—who also directed an achingly personal, black and white stunner, “Cold War,” have proven that “we are all part of the same ocean.” The filmmaker also thanked the Academy for recognizing a film centering on “one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without work rights, a character that has historically been relegated in the background in cinema. As artists our job is to look where others don’t. This responsibility becomes much more important in times when we are being encouraged to look away.” 

In many ways, “Roma” serves as a spiritual companion piece to the director’s 2006 thriller, “Children of Men,” another immersive film tackling the challenge of bringing new life into a chaotic world. When I asked Cuarón about the parallels between these films, he replied, “I don't really see my films after I finish them. I prefer to see other people's movies. I don't really think so much about my films. I know that thematically and in terms of cinematic approach, they have a lot in common, but I would go farther back, probably to ‘Y Tu Mama Tambien,’ which is very connected to this film. But yeah, I will tell you something. The whole theme of birth—I was not even aware that I had been repeating that in my films until you journalists, people from the press and critics mentioned that. So yeah, I guess that there is a connection, but it's more up to you to find it.” Before he left the room, Cuarón expressed his gratitude to members of the press for being “amazingly respectful and supportive” to him during the long journey of awards season.

Another interviewee who made a point of thanking critics, surprisingly enough, was Best Actor winner Rami Malek, star of Bryan Singer’s poorly reviewed yet phenomenally profitable Freddie Mercury biopic, “Bohemian Rhapsody.” His sincerity and sweetness were so infectious that it left no doubt as to why Academy voters favored him on their ballots, in addition to the fact that his performance single-handedly carries much of the picture. “I don't think critically the decision on this film was unanimous,” said Malek, dryly making the understatement of the evening in his first words to the press, “but I do appreciate everything you guys had to write. As a kid, I read criticism of film, and I learned so much from it. So no matter what, I still do very much appreciate you.” 

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Malek got choked up when recalling the “tough battle” of making the film—most of it attributed to Singer, the fired director and alleged perpetrator of sexual assault who still was never mentioned either on or offstage—and how unlikely his Oscar win was in light of it. He also spoke about growing up as a first-generation American, the son of Egyptian immigrants, and how his status as an outsider made it all the easier for him to identify with the lead vocalist of Queen. 

“I grew up in a world where I never thought I was going to play the lead on ‘Mr. Robot’ because I never saw anyone in a lead role that looked like me,” said Malek. “I never thought that I could possibly play Freddie Mercury until I realized his name was Farrokh Bulsara, and that is the most powerful message that was sent to me from the beginning. That was the motivation that allowed me to say, ‘Oh, I can do this. That man steps on stage and he moves people in a way that no one else does. He has the ability to look everyone in the eye and see them for who they are. And that's because he was struggling to identify himself. All of that passion and virtue and everything burning inside of him allowed him to look to everybody else and say, ‘Hey, I see you.’ Not right here in the front—I see you there in the back. I see all of you, I will play to all of you, and together we will transcend. Because it's not about being from one place or looking like one thing, one race. Any of that. We are all human beings. And forgive me for this, but collectively we are all the champions.” 

Mahershala Ali’s unwavering class and genuinely humble demeanor also led him to emerge unscathed from the controversy endured by his film, as he received his second Best Supporting Actor statuette only two years after his win for “Moonlight.” In the press room, he spoke warmly about his fellow nominees, all of whom had roles that fit the definition of “supporting player” much more than Don Shirley, who is practically a co-lead in “Green Book.”

“Any of those gentlemen could have been up here and would be, obviously, deserving of being up here,” said Ali. “They did wonderful work, beautiful work, work that inspired me. So to be the one that was chosen to get to hold this trophy again, it's not something that I take lightly. It's not something I take for granted. If anything, it makes me more aware of all the people that have really contributed to my life, from childhood to my team that works on my behalf and is always looking to take advantage of the best opportunities that are fit for me. And so I'm very grateful. The first one helped me get ‘Green Book.’ I don't think if I had won—I wasn't just getting offers like that, you know. Getting an Oscar for ‘Moonlight’ changes your profile. It gets you in other rooms, and it shines a light on your work. You could have been around for 15, 20 years and suddenly people notice you. I’m really grateful for that, because I've been wanting to work and expand and stretch. This was the first time I got to stretch my legs.”

Whereas Malek and Ali were largely favored to win their respective categories, hardly anyone expected Olivia Colman to claim Best Actress over seven-time nominee Glenn Close, who was considered to be unbeatable after her surprise win at the Golden Globes. No one appeared to be as shocked as Colman, the brilliant British star of Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favourite,” whose speech was so endearingly gobsmacked that it even got a laugh out of Close. By the time she arrived in the press room, Colman was almost entirely at a loss for words. I told her that I knew she was one of the great actors as soon as I saw her in Paddy Considine’s 2011 gem, “Tyrannosaur,” and asked how she went about finding the tragic in the absurd—and vice versa—as the neurotic queen in Lanthimos’ film. “Well, that is lovely of you,” Colman gushed. “That is a lovely thing for you to say. Thank you very much.” And then with a giggle, she answered, “I don’t know … sorry!” Later she admitted, “I could not tell you what I'm feeling. Next year, I might be able to put it into words, but I don't know what to do with myself at the moment.”

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The pangs of disappointment undoubtedly experienced by Close were shared by your’s truly near the beginning of the telecast, when Jimi Chin and Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi’s visual powerhouse, “Free Solo,” won Best Documentary over Bing Liu’s Kartemquin production “Minding the Gap,” one of the very best films I’ve ever seen. So deeply was I invested in its victory that I wore a shirt baring its title under my tuxedo, if only to ensure that the film would have a presence in the press room regardless. Liu’s film is a testament to the cathartic power of cinema, enabling its subjects to see themselves reflected in each other’s story, as they open up about their experiences of domestic abuse and how it has shaped their young adulthood. I was reminded of the film when listening to the riveting words of Regina King, winner of Best Supporting Actress for “If Beale Street Could Talk,” directed by one of Liu’s most high-profile champions, Barry Jenkins. Recounting her most wrenching scene in the film, where her character, Sharon, encounters the woman who mistakenly believes she was raped by “Fonny” (the fiancé of Sharon’s daughter), King said she drew upon her own experiences as a woman. 

“If we have not experienced a violation on that level firsthand, we have lifted a sister up through that,” King said. “Every woman that had something to do with this production [had] the understanding and the need to make sure that it was very clear in the story that we all knew that she was raped. It wasn't Fonny, but she was raped. And we hold each other up through a secret that shouldn't be a secret, so often. That's the beautiful thing about the #MeToo movement. It has gone beyond that with creating opportunities for women to find their voice—even beyond just being violated sexually, but being marginalized. When you have put in the work to be at the table and are denied a seat at the table, this movement has allowed us and has inspired us to say, ‘No, I am supposed to have a seat at that table.’ That energy was going on throughout the production of this film. Barry supported that and lifted it up as well. When you have men and women working together, pretty amazing things happen.”

There’s no question Lady Gaga would agree with King’s words, as she joined co-writers Mark Ronson, Anthony Rossomando and Andrew Wyatt in the press room following their Best Original Song win for their showstopper, “Shallow.” Gaga appeared with Bradley Cooper onstage for an uncommonly intimate performance on their signature tune, recapturing the chemistry that ignited their duets—both musical and otherwise—in the movie.  

“There are many songs written for this film, but there was one song that was written with true, true friends of mine that I've known, and who know everything about me, the ups and the downs,” said Gaga. “And the truth is people see what they see on the outside. In some way, shape, or form, at times, we become architects. The truth is, I was so determined to live my dreams and yet there was so much in the way. There were so many things I did not anticipate that broke me, that tortured me, that traumatized me. And I think sometimes, what you are trying to clarify, is that people think that it comes easy to us because when we show up and we have our suits on, that it's all okay. But the truth is every single person on this stage has been through so much. We are friends. We have worked on ourselves in life. We have tried to heal through the torment of this industry and being artists. And the truth is that this is very, very hard work. It is not for the faint of heart. But I would never want to imply that anyone in the world is faint of heart. I wanted everyone tonight to feel like they could be each one of us on that stage.”

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When she was handed her Oscar, Gaga said that she looked it in the eye and “saw a lot of pain. I saw all the things that I've been through. And I also felt the camaraderie and the truth of the pain that the men standing next to me have been through as well.” 

“The song itself is a conversation, and it's between a man and a woman,” said Rossomando. “I think that maybe there's some timing involved where people's hearts are open to that conversation. Maybe that's why it's translated so widely. Someone sent me a couple videos this week of an entire church congregation singing the song. And it actually brought me to tears.”

“I really believe in my heart that the unfortunate truth is that our cell phones—as I watch you all typing—are becoming our reality,” said Gaga. “It's becoming reality for the world. And in this song, we provide not just a conversation, but also a very poignant statement. I wish to not be in the shallow, but I am. I wish to dive off the deep end, and watch me do it. I think this is something that speaks to many people. And during, I think, a very shallow time, it's a chance for us all to grab hands, dive off into the water together, and swim into the deepest depths of the ocean that we can.”

Though “BlacKkKlansman” was passed over for considerably lighter fare in the top category, an equally incendiary picture went on to be named Best Live Action Short Film. Israeli director Guy Nattiv’s “Skin” centers on a family of white supremacists and the senseless violence waged by its monstrous patriarch. When he severely beats a black man for having a harmless interaction with his son in a supermarket, the hateful sadist eventually finds himself having what can only be defined as an out-of-body experience. Asked whether the film was intended to be a response to the racism frequently voiced by President Trump and members of his administration, producer Jamie Ray Newman said that she and Nattiv weren’t necessarily trying to make a political statement.

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“Guy is the grandchild of four Holocaust survivors,” said Newman. “He grew up with stories about the Holocaust. I'm Jewish as well, and I think that we just deeply want to explore. In the short, we explored how what you teach your children is going to perpetuate the next generation. We have a five-month-old, so we see she's a sponge. Everything we do, she inherits. The film starts out with a father shaving his boy's head because he's literally carving him in his own image. And the feature, which is next, is a true story about a very famous skinhead who was covered in neo-Nazi tattoos, and through the collaboration with a black activist, got all of them taken off. I think that the beauty of Guy as a filmmaker is he doesn't pound anything over your head. He's subtle. He doesn’t have answers, but he shows you the questions.”

While watching the film, I was struck by its excerpted inclusion of Mica Levi’s indelible score for Jonathan Glazer’s “Under the Skin.” It’s something only film musical aficionados would likely spot, and I couldn’t resist asking Nattiv about his soundtrack choice, considering Levi is one of the most exciting composers working today. “Mica Levi is probably the musician that influenced me more than any musician right now,” he told me. “I’m very influenced by her work, and I think that our musician was too. Inspiration is what I would call it. I hope to work with Mica one day on my next film.”

It’s only fitting that “Captain Marvel” stars Brie Larson and Samuel L. Jackson presented Spike Lee with his Academy Award, seeing as Marvel had a hugely successful evening, with Ryan Coogler’s “Black Panther” scooping up three accolades including the first Oscar for Lee’s longtime costume designer Ruth Carter. As the first-ever black recipient of the prize, she admitted to the press that she had been dreaming and praying for this night to arrive because of what it would mean for the young people coming behind her. Carter said that her innovative use of 3-D printing may have “tipped the iceberg” in her favor. It was UCLA professor Julia Koerner who developed the algorithm for the isicholo—the South African married woman's hat—in her computer and sent it to Belgium for 3-D printing. 

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“There were several iterations of the ‘Black Panther’ story through every comic book writer and illustrator, but it all started with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, and their idea that the black community in the 60s needed a superhero,” noted Carter. “And guess what? The black community in 2018 needed a superhero as well. So with that, we created a new Wakanda because it's a forward nation. It's forward in technology. So we couldn't really use the old tech from the other comics. We had to create new tech. And with that, the door was open to us to be creative. […] I love the neck rings from the Ndebele tribe. I love the use of leather skins from the Himba women. I love the symbolism of the beadwork on the Dora Milaje. I love how their costume honors the female form. It shows that you can also be beautiful and be a warrior without being exploited.”

Another key member of the “Black Panther” team, Hannah Beachler, also made history as the first black production designer to be honored with an Oscar. Fighting back tears, she credited Coogler with enabling her to stand before the audience “with agency and self-worth,” and likened the massive undertaking of the project to “eating an elephant one spoonful at a time.”

“A lot of the inspiration came from where we located Wakanda on the continent, because if people were going to migrate, they were going to migrate around that area,” said Beachler. “So we took a very anthropological look at how the country was placed on the continent, and then from there, you've got your Omo Valley tribes that are in southeast Ethiopia. It's like they migrated down to Wakanda, and that became our river tribe. These were our inspirations. We wanted to be as real as we could.”

Few films I’ve seen in recent memory earned as euphoric a reaction as this year’s Oscar winner for Best Animated Feature, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” When the titular superhero’s co-creators Stan Lee and Steve Ditko, who both passed away last year, turned up at the end in a dedication card, the entire audience at my screening rose to its feet and cheered. After recounting this experience to the film’s trio of directors—Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman—they told me that they had intended on mentioning the late comic mavericks in their acceptance speech, but were cut off by the music. 

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“We were going to thank Stan Lee and Steve Ditko for really inspiring this whole thing, and for being a force of believing that all of us—human beings—have the potential and the capacity to be heroes,” Persichetti told me. “Phil and Chris had put together a treatment for us to make a movie that challenged the audience to believe in themselves, believe in their neighbor and really be positive and make a difference in the world. And possibly be a mentor or be heroic. That was really it.”

Joining the trio onstage were the film’s co-writer/producer Phil Lord and producer Chris Miller, the extraordinarily inventive duo behind “The Lego Movie,” who are fully committed to expanding representation in cinema, as evidenced by the vibrantly diverse ensemble in “Spider-Verse.”

“When we hear that somebody’s kid was watching the movie and turned to them and said, ‘He looks like me,’ or, ‘They speak Spanish like us,’ we feel like we already won,” said Lord in his acceptance speech.

“To be a storyteller, it's really just about connecting with your audience, whether it's your little kid that you are putting to sleep or, apparently, millions of people who go see your movie,” reflected Persichetti in the press room. “So I think it's just validation of being a human and sharing the experience of being a human. It's kind of an amazing career.”

Added Miller, “To feel like you have affected someone else's life positively, one way or another, is a really magical thing that we don't take lightly.”

After the briskly paced three-hour-and-17-minute telecast came to a crisp close, I ran into Bing Liu, his mother and “Minding the Gap” producer Diane Quon outside the Dolby Theatre. I showed them the shirt I had been wearing under my tux all night, and they insisted on taking a picture of it. Liu may not have gone home with an Oscar in hand last night, but I have no doubt that when he encounters someone whose life has been deeply impacted by his work, he knows in his heart of hearts that he’s already won. 

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