As expected, diversity (or the lack thereof) was the hot-button topic at tonight’s BAFTA Awards. Joaquin Phoenix, picking up his Best Actor prize for Joker, made a particularly poignant speech on the topic.
“I feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here,” he said onstage at the Royal Albert Hall. “I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium and our industry, and in ways that we benefit from.”
“I don’t think anybody wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think people just want to be acknowledged, appreciated and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem,” Phoenix continued.
“I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive, but I think it’s more than just having sets that are multicultural. We have to do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism. I think it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it. So that’s on us,” he concluded.
The speech has caused quite a stir on social media. Responding to Phoenix’s words, The Farewell director Lulu Wang took to Twitter to write, “An uncomfortable silence filled the hall for a long noticeable moment. Thank you Joaquin.”
The Brit org has taken flack since it unveiled a nominations list featuring no non-white actors, and an all-male list of nommed directors. In response, it took the unusual step of mailing its members to express frustration over the lack of diversity, and has also promised a review of its voting procedures post this year’s ceremony.
Prince William, awarding this year’s BAFTA Fellowship to Star Wars producer Kathleen Kennedy, also weighed in on the topic.
“We find ourselves talking again about the need to do more to address diversity in the sector. That cannot be right in this day and age. I know Pippa [Harris] and Amanda [Berry] share that frustration. BAFTA take this issue seriously, and following this year’s nominations have launched a full review… to ensure the opportunities are available to everyone,” said the Duke of Cambridge.
Rebel Wilson, presenting the Best Director award, made reference to the all-male nominees, “A look at the exceptional, daring talent nominated in this category. I don’t think I could do what they do. Honestly. I just don’t have the balls.”
Speaking backstage having claimed two BAFTAs on the night, Parasite director Bong Joon Ho, also addressed questions on diversity.
“I’m not sure if I’m necessarily contributing to the diversity of the BAFTAs or the Oscars because I’ve been creating films for the past 20 years. It’s a huge honor to be invited to these events. From the various efforts we put in, I think naturally we will come to a day where we do have diversity whether it’s about gender, sexuality or people of color,” said the South Korean director.
Also backstage after scooping the Best Actress BAFTA, Judy star Renée Zellweger added, “I’m grateful there are more female storytellers out there. I think it was the president of BAFTA who said content should reflect society more completely, I agree with that.”
Throughout the evening, BAFTA made regular reference to its list of nominees for the Rising Star Award, which, featuring majority of non-white actors and 2/5 women, was a more diverse group than the main awards.
For the first time, individual packages highlighting each nominee and featuring clips from their performances were dotted throughout the ceremony. Whether that was a deliberate endeavor by BAFTA to up the night’s presence of diverse acting talent, or merely part of an increased deal with sponsor EE, wasn’t immediately clear. BAFTA did also make sure to highlight its Breakthrough Brits initiative during the ceremony, which last year featured a majority of women participants.
The Rising Star winner, Micheal Ward, whose credits include Netflix’s Top Boy and UK box office hit Blue Story, was met by a rapturous response from the audience.
Off-stage, Queen & Slim star Jodie Turner-Smith, who many thought could’ve been a nominee in the acting field this year, wasn’t holding back with the quips when live-tweeting from inside the ceremony.
“i’m sitting next to half of the black people here and the three of us are laughing at all of [Graham Norton’s] jokes,” she posted as this year’s host pointed to the #BAFTAsSoWhite controversy in his opening monologue.
“Finally remembered as the year white men broke through… 11 nominations for Joker, essentially the story of a white man who makes himself even whiter,” Norton quipped.
“They’re beginning the ceremony by patting themselves on the back for including women and bong joon ho,” Turner-Smith also wrote as the awards got underway.
It was a more positive night, diversity-wise, for some of the winners in the earlier categories.
For Sama scooped the award for Best Documentary, having become the most-nommed doc in BAFTA’s history. The project came from female Syrian director Waad al-Kateab, who had the joint most nominations for any individual (alongside Bong, who won Original Screenplay and Foreign Language Film), and Edward Watts.
The winners in both short film and animated short were women directors, Carol Dysinger and Elena Andreicheva for Learning to Skateboard in a Warzone (If You’re a Girl), and Iranian-British director Maryam Mohajer for Grandad Was a Romantic.
Klaus director Sergio Pablos also highlighted the diverse crew employed on his animated feature, “[The film had] the most diverse crew I’ve ever worked with. 22 countries, 15 languages, almost gender parity.”