In the 86 years since The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences started handing out Oscars, not a single black man has been given a statuette associated with the Best Picture category. That changed on March 2 as director Steve McQueen accepted the Best Picture award for 12 Years a Slave.
The film’s win is remarkable not only for making Oscar history, but for how infrequently black people even have been nominated in this category — there have been a few previous nominations, including Quincy Jones for The Color Purple, Lee Daniels for Precious, Broderick Johnson for The Blind Side, and Reginald Hudlin for Django Unchained.
Speaking in the press room backstage, McQueen said of the history of the win: “Obviously, it’s a mark of development. It’s just obviously a progression. The background characters are now in the foreground and their lives are being recognized in a way, more ever than before. I think people are ready for this narrative. People want to look at this history. If we don’t know our past, we’ll never know our future.”
With the Academy’s recent efforts at expanding diversity — through membership and leadership (Cheryl Boone Isaacs became the first black president of the organization) — as well as recognizing diverse nominees and winners over the last 15 years, this win points to a hopeful broadening of voices and stories within filmmaking in general. And McQueen’s win was accompanied by a win for Best Director for Latino Alfonso Cuarón for Gravity, another historic event.
Also, backstage, 12 Years a Slave producer Brad Pitt said, “I love this film and I love this filmmaking. I think it’s important that we’re dealing with our history. It’s important that we understand our history, not for any kind of guilt, but so we can understand who we were so we can understand who we are.”
When John Ridley, who won the award for Best Adapted Screenplay for 12 Years a Slave (based on Solomon Northup’s 1853 memoir), was asked in the press room what it means to be the second black screenplay winner (the first being Geoffrey Fletcher for Precious), he said, “I’m very proud, I’m very humble, and I’m very hopeful for the future.”