SAG Awards: Diversity Reigns in a Rebuke to #OscarsSoWhite

Idris Elba - H 2016
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Idris Elba, who failed to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in 'Beasts of No Nation,' was the toast of the evening.

The ensemble casts of Spotlight and Downton Abbey won the top awards at the 22nd Screen Actors Guild Awards, held Saturday night at the Shrine Auditorium and Expo Hall in Los Angeles.

But the big takeaway from the evening was the focus it put on diversity, especially in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that has enveloped this year’s Academy Awards.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to diverse TV,” Idris Elba said as he appeared beside his young Beasts of No Nation co-star Abraham Attah to introduce a clip from the film about child soldiers in an African civil war. Elba, who failed to earn an Oscar nomination for his performance in Beasts, was the toast of the SAG Awards, winning a supporting actor award for that film and a second trophy for TV’s Luther. Other minority winners included Viola Davis, Queen Latifah and Uzo Aduba, while the awards also embraced the subject of transgender people with awards to performers from the film The Danish Girl and the TV series Transparent.

Nominations for the SAG Awards, which cover both film and TV, were announced in December, well ahead of the Academy's Jan. 14 nominations announcement, which provoked protest when all the Oscar acting noms went to white performers. Balloting for the SAG Awards closed Jan. 29, amid a growing industry-wide discussion about diversity, and the SAG-AFTRA voters, more than 160,000 strong, showed a willingness to embrace a wide range of performers and issues.

Spotlight — which took the prize for best film ensemble, the rough equivalent of the best picture Oscar — chronicles the team of reporters at The Boston Globe who exposed sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. In accepting the award, Mark Ruffalo spoke about the victims and survivors of that abuse, saying, "this allows them to be seen in a world that has been blind to them."

Ruffalo then passed the mic to his co-star Michael Keaton, who delivered he night's most impassioned words as he said, "Honestly, this is not only for the survivors of this horrific situation. But for me, personally, and I'm only speaking for me, this is really for the disenfranchised everywhere. This is for every Flint, Michigan, in the world. This is for the powerless, for the powerful who take advantage of the powerless, and you can hang me for that. I don't really care." He concluded, "it comes down to two things. There's fair and there's unfair. And I'm always going to vote for the fair. I'm going to vote for the good guys."

Leonardo DiCaprio made his way to the winner’s podium at the SAG Awards for the first time in his career, winning best feature film actor for his performance as a 19th century man struggling to survive the elements in The Revenant. He paid tribute to his fellow actors, past and present, recalling how, as a 15-year-old, after appearing in This Boy's Life, he began studying the whole history of film. "For any young actors out there, I encourage you to watch the history of cinema," he said. "We all stand on the shoulders of giants."

Brie Larson won her first SAG Award as outstanding actress in a feature film for playing a fiercely protective mom in Room. She spoke of feeling as if she didn't belong growing up, but, addressing her fellow actors, she said, "Watching your movies made me feel less alone."

Elba won his first SAG Award for playing a fearsome warlord in Beasts of No Nation. The actor, who recalled he earned his SAG card by appearing on Law & Order 20 year ago, said of his movie, set in a war-torn African nation, “We made a film about real people and real lives and to be rewarded for it is very special,” concluding, “so thank you for giving this film some light.”

Just moments later, he was called back to the stage to accept the award as best actor in a TV movie or miniseries for the playing a detective in the BBC’s Luther, which he hailed as “the darkest show on TV.”

Swedish actress Alicia Vikander also became a first-time SAG winner with her award for best supporting actress for playing the artist Gerde Wegener, who discovers her husband is transgender, in The Danish Girl. She explained she fell in love with acting watching her “mum,” who is an actress, rehearse and perform.

On the TV side, PBS' Downton Abbey, which is now airing its final season, won its second ensemble award. Speaking for the British cast, Lesley Nicol, who plays the cook Mrs. Patmore, thanked the American actors for welcoming them each year with "kindness and generosity."

Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black and Aduba, who plays that series’ inmate Crazy Eyes, repeated the wins they scored last year as they were once again named best comedy ensemble and TV comedy actress, respectively. “This is what diversity looks like,” Laura Prepon said as she accepted the award with the rest of the multiethnic cast surrounding her. Aduba concluded her acceptance with a shoutout to the aspiring “actors who are at home,” urging them to “keep trying, keep plugging.”

Jeffrey Tambor, whose trophy shelf already has an Emmy and a Golden Globe, picked up the SAG award for outstanding actor in a TV comedy for playing the transgender Maura Pfefferman in Amazon’s Transparent. Noting that his character has the financial resources to help her in her transition, he dedicated the award to "the non-Maura Pfeffermans who don’t have a lot of cash for their operations, for their medicine, for their freedom.”

Queen Latifah won a SAG Award, the second of her career, for playing the singer Bessie Smith in HBO’s Bessie. “I hope that anyone our there who does not come in the package that people say you should, keep fighting for it,” she said.

Kevin Spacey prevailed as best actor in a drama for his conniving politician in Netflix’s House of Cards. It was the second SAG Award he's won for the role. "I would like to thank our creator," Spacey began his acceptance. "No, not that one, the one grounded here on earth, Beau Willimon," the show's creator, who has just announced he will not be returning for the series' fifth season. Spacey also included a crack about the theory of relativity, an allusion to his newly-announced job as chairman of Relativity Studios, whose film operations he will oversee once Ryan Kavanaugh's company emerges from  bankruptcy.

Davis also joined the night's club of second-timers with her repeat win as outstanding actress in a drama for her unscrupulous lawyer Annalise Keating in ABC’s How to Get Away With Murder. Observing that some have called Annalise an unlikable antihero, she said, "My job as an actor is just to create a human being to the best of my ability."

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler were on hand to present Carol Burnett with the evening’s Life Achievement Award. Praising Burnett for running her own show, Fey testified watching The Carol Burnett Show as kids gave them “the dream of our lives where we could be paid to make comedy with our friends and also be their boss.” Added Poehler, “The point is Carol is better than all of us. We are here to give her a prize.”

Burnett, after receiving a standing ovation, thanked the two, calling them “the whole ball of wax.” And after recounting her days as head of The Carol Burnett Show, she left the stage with her signature signoff line, “I’m so glad we’ve had this time together.”

Before the live broadcast, aired on TBS and TNT, began, SAG Awards for outstanding stunt performers ensembles were handed out to Mad Max: Fury Road and Game of Thrones.

With wins for Beasts of No Nation, House of Cards and Orange Is the New Black, Netflix bested its rivals in both film and TV by collecting four awards during the course of the night.