History made with ’12 Years a Slave,’ ‘Gravity’ as diversity wins big at 86th Oscars

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LOS ANGELES, Calif. – The brutal, unshrinking historical drama “12 Years a Slave” won best picture at the 86th annual Academy Awards where diversity was perhaps the biggest winner.

For the first time, a film directed by a black filmmaker — Steve McQueen of “12 Years a Slave” — won best picture and a Latino — Alfonso Cuaron of “Gravity” — took home best director in a ceremony presided over by a lesbian host and overseen by the academy’s first black president.

McQueen’s grimly historical drama “12 Years a Slave” took best picture, leading the usually sedate filmmaker to jump up and down in celebration after his acceptance speech.

The British director dedicated his award to “all of the people who endured slavery and the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

Cuaron’s lost-in-space thriller “Gravity” led the Oscars with seven awards, including cinematography, editing, score, visual effects, sound mixing and sound editing. Some in his native Mexico have been critical that since the attention came for a Hollywood release and not a Mexican-themed film, his win didn’t have the same kind of importance.

“I’m Mexican so I hope some Mexicans were rooting for me,” he told reporters backstage.

The entire Oscar ceremony had the feel of a make-over for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences — an institution that has sometimes seemed stuck in the past. After a Los Angeles Times report revealed the academy was overwhelming older white men, new president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has pushed for a more varied membership.

The movie industry that the Oscars reflect has also been reluctant to tell a wider range of stories.

“Dallas Buyers Club,” the best picture-nominated drama about AIDS in 1980s Texas, took two decades to get made after countless executives balked at financing such a tale. Matthew McConaughey and Jared Leto won best actor and best supporting actor for their roles in the film as a heterosexual rodeo rat (McConaughey) and a transgender drug addict (Leto) united by HIV.

“Thirty-six million people who have lost the battle to AIDS and to those of you out there who have ever felt injustice because of who you are or who you love, tonight I stand here in front of the world with you and for you,” said Leto is his acceptance speech.

Cate Blanchett, best-actress winner for her bitter, ruined socialite in Woody Allen’s “Blue Jasmine,” used her acceptance speech to trumpet the need to make films with female leads — films like her own and like “Gravity,” starring Sandra Bullock. A study by analyst Kevin B. Lee found that last year’s lead actors averaged 100 minutes on screen, but lead actresses averaged only 49 minutes.

“To the audiences who went to see the film and perhaps those of us in the industry who are still foolishly clinging to the idea that female films, with women at the centre, are niche experiences, they are not,” said Blanchett. “Audiences want to see them and, in fact, they earn money.”

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