This past weekend’s M.V.P. isn’t who you'd expect it to be. It's not Leonardo DiCaprio, who won his first-ever Academy Award after 22 years of waiting and six previous close calls. It’s not Tom McCarthy, the director/co-writer of Spotlight, which won big at the Independent Spirit Awards on Saturday and last night’s Oscars. And, believe it or not, it's not Chris Rock, the Oscars' expectedly hilarious and cutting host who played the #OscarsSoWhite reactions just right throughout the seemingly endless (though technically, 3.5 hours long) broadcast, never going too far but also never holding anything back. The M.V.P. is Kumail Nanjiani, the comedian and co-star of HBO’s Silicon Valley, who both directly and indirectly captured the highs and lows of the film industry’s biggest weekend of the year. His is a twofold victory.
First off, Nanjiani's always-entertaining Twitter account was home to Oscar night’s most spot-on tweet:
#Oscars are that guy you don't see anymore & you hang & it's great & then he gets drunk & you're like "Oh right it's fuckin Chad."
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) February 29, 2016
That’s the best possible review for every Academy Awards event, but especially last night’s ceremony.
At first, the 88th annual Oscars were seriously killer, thanks to Chris Rock’s scathingly ruthless opening monologue. Everyone knew he’d attack Hollywood for its non-existent diversity and, for the second year in a row, its vanilla-dominated Oscar nominations, and he didn’t disappoint. Rock found a clever way to address the Black Lives Matter movement, announcing that the show's "In Memoriam" segment would just be "black people that were shot by cops on their way to the movies"; he reflected on Hollywood’s history with snubbing black talent, joking that there weren’t any film-related protests back in the 1960s "because we had real things to protest at the time—we were too busy being lynched to care about who won Best Cinematographer"; and, toughest of all, he fired numerous shots at Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, neither of whom attended the Oscars in a self-issued “boycott,” presumably because Smith didn’t receive a nomination for Concussion. Rock’s funniest line of the night came at Jada Pinkett Smith's expense: "Jada boycotting the Oscars is like me boycotting Rihanna’s panties—I wasn't invited!"
The show’s momentum then continued for nearly half of its running time, with Rock's monologue being one-upped by an awesome, pre-recorded “Place Black Actors in this year’s Best Pictures” segment in which SNL standout Leslie Jones played The Revenant’s infamous bear, and another segment in which Rock asked black patrons at a movie theater in Compton, Calif., about Best Picture nominees like Spotlight and Brooklyn.
The show's first-half success, powered by Rock’s triumphant handling of the racially heavy elephant in the room, culminated in a between-two-commercial-breaks stretch where Mad Max: Fury Road—the evening’s "people's champ," no question—won five awards, all in technical categories and all signifying that director George Miller's incredible action spectacle/first-class prestige genre film was slowly but surely inching towards Best Picture and Best Director upsets over The Revenant and Alejandro González Iñárritu.
Watching Mad Max: Fury Road claim Best Costume Design, Best Production Design, Best Makeup, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, and Best Film Editing was, to use Nanjiani's analogy, the part of the night where "Chad" was a great dude to hang out with, but it wasn’t long after Fury Road’s dominant streak that “Chad” started getting hammered drunk. In the biggest shock of the night, the great stage actor Mark Rylance (nominated for Bridge of Spies) shocked the world by winning Best Supporting Actor and crushing Sylvester Stallone’s universally anticipated acceptance speech into nothingness and, thus, angering pretty much all of Film Twitter. After giving a heart-shredding performance of her nominated song "Til It Happens to You" (from the documentary The Hunting Ground), Lady Gaga lost the Best Original Prize to Sam Smith’s widely panned Spectre theme, "Writing's on the Wall."
As the Oscars progressed towards Spotlight's slightly surprising Best Picture win, even Chris Rock had lost steam, milking a Girl Scout cookies bit way longer than it ever should've been milked. If anything, Rock should’ve brought Stacey Dash back out for a second enormously awkward moment of WTF trolling—her appearance as Rock’s appointed head of the Academy's "minority outreach program" was genius to anyone who’s aware of the fact that Dash has publicly talked smack about the existence of a Black History Month and has been a target for the self-proclaimed "Black Twitter" sect of social media for her right-wing extremism.
By the time Leonardo DiCaprio won Best Actor for The Revenant, surprising absolutely no one, Nanjiani's analogy had fully materialized. It’d become clear that Mad Max: Fury Road wasn’t going to win Best Picture. And Rock’s presence had been minimized in an effort to prevent the already overlong show from extending more than 30 minutes past its scheduled end-point. It turned back into “f*ckin Chad” again, and, despite Rock’s best efforts, there wasn’t any real sense that the #OscarsSoWhite pushers had been vindicated. Because, in the end, the conversation reverted back to Leonardo DiCaprio and Spotlight, which are similarly accomplished, yes, but also melanin-deficient.
Which makes Kumail "M.V.P." Nanjiani's Friday-through-Sunday commentary all the more important. Saturday, a little more than 24 hours before the Academy Awards, he and Saturday Night Live's Kate McKinnon co-hosted the Film Independent Spirit Awards, where film's diversity truly lived over the eventful awards-packed weekend. Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation, the film that was shafted the most by the Academy’s nominations this year, killed it at the Indie Spirits, with co-star Idris Elba winning for Best Supporting Male and first-time actor Abraham Attah winning for Best Male Lead. The ceremony’s other showstopper was Mya Taylor, who won Best Supporting Female for Sean Baker’s iPhone-5s-shot Tangerine, making her the first transgender actress to ever snag a major award of that kind and caliber. Earlier in the night, while presenting Tangerine as one of the Indie Spirits' Best Feature nominees, Taylor said, in regards to the film’s trans-populated and taboo-smashing setting, "Maybe it's not the old classic Hollywood, but it is damn straight the Hollywood of today."
As Nanjiani put it during his and McKinnon’s opening monologue, the Indie Spirits were "more diverse than the brochure of a liberal arts college," while the Oscars were "as diverse as the student body at a liberal arts college." And that's why the Indie Spirits reigned supreme over the Academy Awards, and will continue to do so every year until the Academy wakes up, School Daze style. Whereas Chris Rock had to undercut rampant whiteness while helplessly watching a bunch of white people celebrate themselves, Nanjiani (a Pakistani man) and McKinnon (an openly gay woman) cracked jokes about equal representation in a place where Hollywood’s real-world diversity, which the AMPAS refuses to acknowledge, was on full display. "We're going to cuss," joked McKinnon during their monologue, "we're going to flash some nip, and we’re going to nominate some people who aren’t white."
The importance of that can’t be overstated, especially since the world as a whole, let alone the entertainment industry, has a long way to go before things like the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite or the need for someone like Kumail Nanjiani to poke fun at himself are no longer necessary. On stage, Nanjiani described himself and McKinnon with commendable self-deprecation, as "a gay woman and a Pakistani man. Or as Hollywood thinks of us: a straight woman and her IT guy." Off the stage, though, he had a much different experience:
Highlight of hosting the Spirit Awards: Working with Kate McKinnon. Lowlight: Photog on red carpet saying "Smile you're in America now."
— Kumail Nanjiani (@kumailn) February 28, 2016
With every two steps forward, there’s always one step backwards.
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