By Maggie Neilson
Powerful. Provocative. During a political season that has frequently left me horrified, the 88th Academy Awards gave me hope that all might not be for naught in our society. For better and worse, awards shows inform our cultural conversation, and none has quite the magnetism of the Oscars. The gold statuette signifies so much, and this year's host and winners used the platform to maximum effect.
Vice President Biden even engaged in a major way, introducing Lady Gaga's beautiful, stirring performance dedicated to sexual assault survivors. The survivors themselves stole the show, forcing us to look straight at an issue that often lives in the shadows - unfortunately alongside its victims. Especially in light of the success and importance of the film Spotlight, this message deserved to take center-stage.
And there was host Chris Rock, navigating the controversy around racism in the Academy and more broadly in the country in a way only a brilliant comedian of his caliber could. But Rock did not miss his opportunity to speak seriously, making the statement: "it's not about boycotting anything - It's we want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities. That's it."
Best Director winner Alejandro Gonzalez-Inarritu emphasized equality for and racism towards indigenous peoples, stating passionately and eloquently: "what a great opportunity for our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and this tribal thinking, and to make sure for once and forever that the color of our skin becomes as irrelevant as the length of our hair."
Inarritu's Revenant star Leonardo DiCaprio probably had the biggest moment - for a number of reasons, including a triumphant standing ovation - and he was prepared. Bringing up his film's outdoor set and dependence on nature, he flawlessly seized the moment to advocate for the environment: "let us not take this planet for granted."
The list does not end here - Spotlight won Best Picture (star Mark Ruffalo marched that morning in front of an LA archdiocese with abuse survivors); Mad Max costume designer Jenny Beavan called for kindness; the Best Foreign Film was about a Holocaust prisoner; Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy's film, A Girl in the River, not only won, but shifted Pakistan's laws around honor killings; Sam Smith dedicated his win to the LGBT community. It's not hyperbole to say that this was the most important Oscars to-date for bringing social issues to light.
With this U.S. election cycle highlighting the extremes in our country and dividing us (one Facebook friend at a time), we needed this inspiration from the Academy. As an optimist, I was hoping to see one or two causes mentioned, but was truly blown away by Sunday night's display of social awareness. Do we thank the new acceptance-speech scroll for eliminating the stress of trying to thank every manager, family member and business partner, allowing winners to use their 45 seconds more authentically? Maybe. Is humanity evolving and growing more philanthropic? I'd like to think so.
This article originally appeared in The Huffington Post.