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By Rebecca Keegan, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the Oscar nominations in January, the absence of any minority group nominees in the acting categories — for only the second time since 1998 — triggered a backlash of criticism and threats of protest.

But Sunday’s Academy Awards show boasted the most diverse group of performers and presenters in Oscars history, as 15 minority presenters, including Eddie Murphy, Jennifer Lopez, Viola Davis, Idris Elba, Kevin Hart, and Oprah Winfrey, took the stage to deliver the evening’s awards.

It wasn’t by accident.

In the 2012 telecast, there was just one black presenter — Chris Rock. When producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron took over the following year, they made it a priority to have the Oscars show look a little more like the people at home watching. There were eight presenters of color in 2013 and 12 last year.

“We’ve always been very conscious of diversity in terms of our presenters and our performers,” Meron said backstage at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood in the days leading to the show. “We feel that’s the way the world exists. We’ve always been believers in having an Oscar show that reflects the way the world exists.”

Zadan and Meron began recruiting presenters and performers last spring and said their choices were not affected by the furor over the Oscar nominations, which focused largely on the omission of actor David Oyelowo and director Ava DuVernay of Selma, which won a best picture nomination.

Even so, the contrast between the presenters onstage and the nominees drew notice and criticism.

“The presentation (of minorities) onstage does not bear any resemblance to the nominees and therefore the winners,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton, who has been outspoken about the lack of diversity in the academy’s membership and Hollywood as a whole. “One has to wonder whether or not the academy was trying to compensate with optics for what they didn’t do with operations.”

Traditionally the top-rated entertainment show on television, ABC’s Oscar telecast was watched by 36.6 million people in the U.S., according to Nielsen. But the evening’s nominees reflect the tastes of the much smaller, more homogenous academy membership, a group that is 94 percent white and 76 percent male with a median age of 62, according to a 2012 analysis done by the Los Angeles Times.

Since then, the academy has added more women and members of minority groups — but according to the most recent survey, the percentage of older white men in the organization has dipped by only about 1 percentage point.

Zadan and Meron have a history of highlighting minority performers. A number of Zadan and Meron’s previous projects, including a 2012 Steel Magnolias TV movie remake with a black cast and a 2008 TV movie version of the play A Raisin in the Sun, also reflect a long career of working with black artists in particular.

The highlighting of black and Latino performers reflects the support of academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs and Chief Executive Dawn Hudson, who are grappling with how to expand the demographic reach of the 6,292-member group

Diversity appeared a main focus of the show as actors of color were often shown in the audience (Carmen Ejogo and Murphy), onstage giving out awards (Lupita Nyong’o) and referred to often in comedic bits by host Neil Patrick Harris (Octavia Spencer).

Harris also walked into the audience, engaging Oyelowo, who was not nominated for his leading role as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma. He “was so fantastic,” said Harris of Oyelowo’s performance. When the crowd applauded, the host quipped, “Oh, now you like him.”

One of the night’s most memorable moments came from a performance by African-American performers Common and John Legend, who sang the song “Glory” from Selma backed by a gospel choir marching over a replica of the bridge that King and others crossed in Alabama in the push for voting rights that inspired the film. “Glory” went on to win for original song.

Another came when Mexican director Alejandro G. Iñárritu was greeted with a standing ovation when his Birdman won best picture. He dedicated his Oscar to the people of Mexico and told the worldwide TV audience that America should treat immigrants with “dignity and respect.”

Despite the producers’ efforts to draw a wider audience, the telecast suffered a 16 percent drop in ratings from last year’s show. Blame that on a slate of films that relatively few people saw and a host who lacked the star power provided by last year’s host, Ellen Degeneres.

Some critics say the larger issue isn’t the Oscars but a film industry that is not reflective of American society.

“We’re the largest (minority) population in the U.S., and in terms of age demographics we represent a lot of moviegoers,” says Fernando Guerra, professor of political science and of Chicana/o Studies at Loyola Marymount. “Latinos are a huge demographic in terms of purchasing tickets, yet Hollywood is still not responsive. They’re often accused of chasing the mighty dollar. OK then, chase it!”

While the many top Oscar categories lacked people of color this year, several acceptance speeches on Sunday addressed the diversity that some felt was lacking in the awards themselves.

“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” said singer Legend. “We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real.”

Legend also decried the large numbers of black men in prison, saying: “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Patricia Arquette, who won supporting actress for her performance as a single mother in Boyhood, said “wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women.”

“It shows a lot of the artists are far more advanced than the powers that be in Hollywood,” said Sharpton of the speeches. “They need to catch up with the social concerns of the artists. They reflect the culture.”

© 2015 Los Angeles Times, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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