At Sunday's Oscars, on a night when almost everything went as planned and as usual, the one true surprise came in the biggest moment of all.
For the first time ever, a film in a foreign language won best picture when Bong Joon-ho's Parasite, a comedy-drama-thriller about class and secrets, took the big prize. Bong also won the awards for best director and best original screenplay. He delivered three warm and generous speeches, including one when he won for his directing and thanked fellow nominees Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino for inspiring him and boosting his career, respectively. (He acknowledged Sam Mendes and Todd Phillips, too.)
And, while he gave most of his speeches in Korean with interpreter Sharon Choi, when he won the first one, he stopped and noted in English: "This is very first Oscar to South Korea." The affection in the room for the film was evident every time it was mentioned, as well as in its strong haul of awards (though it absurdly landed not a single nomination for its uniformly excellent cast).
The evening began three and a half hours earlier with a combination of the old and the new: the kind of themed singing-dancing number that used to be the typical Oscars opening, but in the absence of a traditional host, it was performed by the thoroughly modern Janelle Monáe. A version of her own song "Come Alive" was accompanied by dancers dressed in costumes saluting not just nominated films like Joker, but also conspicuously snubbed ones — several of them, but not all, from black filmmakers — including Us, Queen and Slim, Dolemite Is My Name and Midsommar. The monologue that followed, however, was much more creaky and awkward, despite the best efforts of Chris Rock and Steve Martin (the latter of whom regrettably blew the name of best actress nominee Cynthia Erivo).
The awards in general, and the ones this season in general, have been heavily criticized for how white the nominees are, the failure to nominate any women directors in a year when several made highly regarded films, and plenty of other shortfalls in inclusivity. The Academy's discomfort with that criticism seemed evident: There may not have been a lot of performers of color among the nominees, but there were a lot among the presenters and speakers and performers. Several presenters — as well as Monáe in her opening number — made mention of the limitations at issue, which is the kind of thing that happens when people are placed in a situation they don't want to ignore but also aren't there to challenge too much.