By Jack Ryan, Senior Staff Writer

For the first time, I can honestly say that the Oscars, like the amazing performers it recognized, achieved above and beyond.

On Sunday night, a month-and-a-half after the Oscar nominations were announced and the subsequent #OscarsSoWhite backlash began again, we finally got to see how the Academy and host Chris Rock responded. They came out swinging.

Rock spent his entire opening monologue — a time normally used to poke fun at the various nominees and Academy guests — directly joking over the controversy instead, characterizing Hollywood as ‘sorority racist.’

This was a very interesting tone to set for the night, particularly considering the number of well-known celebrities refusing to attend the ceremony, including Spike Lee, who was given an Honorary Award by the Academy for his contributions to film this year. The crowd took these jokes very well, a collective breaking of the tension that had been growing since Jan. 14.

The ceremony proceeded just the way the pundits have predicted for months, with Mad Max crushing nearly every technical category, and “Spotlight” and “The Big Short” taking home the major writing awards right off the bat.

There were some exceptions from the white formula in the early winners, most notably Hispanic cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki winning his third consecutive Oscar in the category, as well as “Bear Story” (Best Animated Short) marking Chile’s first Oscar win.

Similarly, both the supporting acting categories awarded nuanced, controlled performances, with Mark Rylance (Bridge of Spies) and Alicia Vikander (The Danish Girl) taking home their respective statues over the brass, powerful roles of Sylvester Stallone and Jennifer Jason Leigh.

As the ceremony continued, it became very clear that it was focused on representing and supporting as many minority groups as possible. Vice President Joe Biden and Lady Gaga led a national representation of the “It’s On Us” campaign for survivors of sexual assault and Sam Smith dedicated his Oscar for Best Original Song to the LGBTQ community.

Even Alejandro Iñarritu, in his triumphant second consecutive Best Director speech, spoke over minutes of walk-off music to preach the importance of acceptance and looking past race. 

And, of course, Brie Larson and Leonardo DiCaprio took home the Lead Actress and Actor Oscars, respectively. Leo’s win continues the Academy’s streak of awarding extreme physical method acting in the Best Actor category (with Eddie Redmayne, Matthew McConaughey and Daniel Day-Lewis preceding him). Leo’s long-awaited victory was also capped off with one of the best speeches in recent history, thanking so many of the industry’s greatest before delving into the importance of environmental care and research.

Brie’s Oscar was certainly the more difficult award to win, as the Best Actress category once again boasted a much more sophisticated range of acting performances than the male counterparts, selecting emotional subtlety
over physical transformation.

What seemed to be the biggest surprise of the night came at the conclusion of the ceremony, as “Spotlight” nudged out fellow frontrunners “The Revenant,” “The Big Short” and “Mad Max” and a previously rowdy crowd took a moment of surprised silence. This win for Tom McCarthy and his crew was not only the safe choice, but the right one — a film of this magnitude may have its individual merits, but it is at its most notable as a coherent whole.

Although these Academy Awards certainly had their share of issues — the ignoring of Alicia Vikander’s category fraud, a strangely racist Asian joke in the midst of an otherwise open-minded and accepting night, and obviously, the lack of African-American winners — it was otherwise a very satisfying affair.

Finally, it seems the time has come where much-watched presentations can reach out and have deeper meaning and power along with, but not in substitution to, some fun crude humor and recognition of deserving winners. There may not have been many nominees of color, but the messages spread by hosts, winners and presenters alike were those of equality, respect and admiration.

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