Just because there was a party going on didn't mean there wouldn't be a serious matter at hand to discuss tonight at the 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards.
"Look at this stage, this is what we talk about when we talk about diversity," Orange Is the New Black star Laura Prepon said, gesturing around her, as the cast was accepting the win for Best Performance by an Ensemble in a TV Comedy. "Different race, color, creed, sexual orientation—I mean, thank you so much."
"Those awards shows where they're not as diverse, they can do the work to work harder," Laverne Cox, who would later share in that OITNB moment, told People on the red carpet before the show. "I think it's important to understand that these things are systemic—when we talk about racism, institutional racism—that these things are systemic and the systems must change if we want to really effect cultural change."
Though really this has been an issue for Hollywood since cameras started rolling, the reemergence of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy this month—after the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences failed to nominate any actors of color for Oscars for the second year in a row—ensured that the debate would take center stage this awards season.
Because this year, the backlash didn't just stop and start with an angry hashtag. 2016 honoree Spike Lee is choosing a Knicks game over the Oscars and a number of celebs, most prominently Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith, have refused to attend or watch. Meanwhile, 2016 Oscars host Chris Rock reportedly went back to the drawing board after the controversy erupted, scrapping whatever he had written and moving forward with new purpose.
A ceremony without a host, the SAGs doesn't usually provide a forum for an entertainer to get on stage and repeatedly crack wise throughout the night or otherwise really dig into the pressing issues of the day, as Rock is expected to do, but the show writers and attendees took it upon themselves to support the need for a more diverse approach to moviemaking and movie-honoring in Hollywood.
Cox praised the SAG Awards for recognizing a diverse array of performers—and the winners list reflected the amount of excellent work being done on screens big and small by non-white actors in movies and films covering a wide range of the human experience. And, perhaps, the actors who voted took it upon themselves to send a very pointed message to the Academy.
Aside from the cast of OITNB, which boasts one of the most diverse ensembles on TV (including Netflix and other streaming services), Uzo Aduba won for lead female actor in a comedy series; Queen Latifah won for her lead role in the HBO movie Bessie; Viola Davis was a winner for lead female actor in a drama series for How to Get Away With Murder; and Idris Elba—one of the most talked-about Oscar snubs—was a two-time winner tonight.
The British thesp visited the stage twice, once for winning Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture for his role as a terrifying-yet-charismatic African warlord in Beasts of No Nation, and again for Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Lead Role for his spot-on work as the titular troubled detective in Luther.
"We made a film about real people and real lives, you know, and to be awarded for it is very special," Elba said about Beasts, which is also streaming on Netflix.
Overall, five of the night's wins for individual performances went to African-American actors, two of them to Elba, and comedy ensemble winner Orange Is the New Black includes a number of people of color.
"It's a start, but the problem starts before the Academy Awards," OITNB actress Selenis Leyva told The Hollywood Reporter backstage after the show's win.
The telecast kicked off, as it does every year, with a handful of actors relating a funny or inspiring anecdote about acting, getting their SAG card or otherwise explaining why they chose the profession. This year Jeffrey Tambor, who plays a transgender woman in Transparent; The Big Bang Theory's Kunnal Nayar, who was born in India; Mr. Robot star Rami Malek, whose parents are Egyptian; and Queen Latifah participated in the opening bit—a pointed illustration of just how diverse the Screen Actors Guild is and that it is far from only white actors who are making some of the best entertainment available.
"The world is a diverse place," Michael Shannon had told the Los Angeles Times on the red carpet before the show. "The great entertainment of all time, from all mediums, is from nonwhite people. You should be representing the world as it is."
"America is an eclectic place ...and in art, you use all colors," Neil Brown Jr., who played DJ Yella in Straight Outta Compton, also told the Times. Added co-star Aldis Hodge, who played MC Ren: "As entertainers, we have a responsibility to better reflect the diversity of the world."
"I have often been told I'm not thin enough, I'm not white enough, I'm not short enough, I'm not man enough," Latifah said in her intro anecdote. "Dammit, I am enough. I am Queen Latifah, and I am an actor!" When she won for Bessie later on, she reminded the aspiring actors out there, "You build your own boxes...Knock that thing away and do you!"
"Welcome to Diverse TV," Elba quipped when he was back onstage to present clips of Beasts of No Nation.
Even Carol Burnett, the recipient of this year's Life Achievement Award, talked about breaking into comedy when it was considered a "man's game," a reminder of the exclusion and discrimination that women also faced for ages in show business—a battle they're fighting to this day when it comes to the wage gap still plaguing Hollywood.
As for that other show taking place on Feb. 28, when there won't be a chance to honor any performances by actors of color, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti told Variety before the SAGs tonight that he was a "huge supporter" of what Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs (who was in attendance tonight) is doing to increase diversity among the group's membership to better honor the best of the best in the future.
"We should see an Oscars that reflects this world, reflects America and reflects our city, and unfortunately we didn't see that in the nominations [this year]," Garcetti said. "So I'm a huge supporter of what Cheryl is doing there. I think there's a real movement. I really want to praise them for the recent moves they've done the last week to ensure that this isn't just a spirit of diversity but it actually brings in new faces, new voters, new people who can share the perspectives of the average person, not just the few."