It helps that the SAGs hand out awards for television as well as film, but Elba’s win for Best Supporting Actor in Beasts of No Nation felt like a particular jab at the Academy. SAG voting ballots were submitted two weeks after the Oscar nominations were announced, prompting uproar over the fact that all 20 acting nominees were white for the second year in a row. Elba won two awards—collecting one for his work in the BBC TV series Luther—and even winked at the controversy onstage, joking, “Welcome to diverse TV.”
Elba was the actor of color most predicted would make this year’s Oscar ballot, having been nominated for a Golden Globe, a SAG, and a BAFTA, which usually forms an unstoppable combination of precursor nods. But he missed out, along with actors like Michael B. Jordan, Benicio Del Toro, and Oscar Isaac who were on the fringes of the race. As a result, the biggest night in Hollywood turned into an event worthy of boycotting. Perhaps just as strangely, the SAGs didn’t nominate the expected Oscar frontrunner in Best Supporting Actor—Sylvester Stallone in Creed—and so Elba had a path to the award.
Aduba won for her work on Orange Is the New Black (Female Actor in a Comedy Series), as did Latifah for the HBO movie Bessie (Female Actor in a Television Movie or Miniseries), and Davis repeated her 2015 Emmy win for How to Get Away With Murder (Female Actor in a Drama Series). Her speech focused more on her role in the show, but her comments backstage built on her powerful words from last September. “We have become a society of trending topics. Diversity is not a trending topic. It’s just not,” she told reporters, continuing:
I felt like I could play Chekhov, any character in Chekhov and Shakespeare in Arthur Miller, in August Wilson. I see myself as an actor. No matter what is going on in the business, I will find a way to practice my art, and all of the actors of color who I know don’t place any limitations on themselves either. So regardless of what is going on with the Academy, regardless of what is going on in Hollywood, they will find a way to be excellent. We always have and we always will.
Davis’s point about “trending topics” felt especially salient—diversity is the buzzword of this year’s awards season—but could still be ignored in future years, especially if the Academy’s rule changes don’t have an immediate impact. Either way, awards ceremonies more and more serve as a dramatic stage for publicly asking these tough questions, and one of the Oscars’ losses is that its expected winners will have little to contribute on that front. Outside of Best Supporting Actor, the SAGs anointed two favored candidates for big trophies later in the month: Leonardo DiCaprio for The Revenant (Lead Actor) and Brie Larson for Room (Lead Actress). Alicia Vikander was named Best Supporting Actress for The Danish Girl, which marks her the likely winner in a more confused category.