This year's Oscar went to much political controversy

Last Sunday’s Academy Awards, the whitest Oscars in almost 20 years, struck a political chord. Noteworthy moments included host Neil Patrick Harris’s opening quip welcoming “the best and whitest ... I mean brightest,” Fashion Police host Giuliana Rancic’s comment that Zendaya’s dreadlocks “smelled like patchouli oil” or “weed,” Patricia Arquette’s call for wage equality, and Common and John Legend’s speech after winning the Best Original Song Oscar for “Glory.”

Harris’ joke demonstrated awareness of a broader systematic problem — namely, the 94 percent white, 76 percent male, and averaged age 63 Academy — while also allowing the people who are the source of the problem to brush off any responsibility to change with a self-deprecating laugh.

Meanwhile, on Instagram, Zendaya called out Rancic’s comments as “outrageously offensive,” adding that her goal was “to showcase [dreadlocks] in a positive light, to remind people of color that our hair is good enough.” Rancic’s damage-control apology was surprisingly graceful, taking personal responsibility for having done wrong (as opposed to an “I’m sorry if you got hurt” cop-out) and admitting to have “learned a lot” from the incident about not perpetuating damaging stereotypes. Though Rancic’s career may never recover (fellow Fashion Police host Kelly Osborne has already resigned in protest), Zendaya has demonstrated her status as role model for women-of-color everywhere.

Arquette’s call “to every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation” that “it is our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” earned enthusiastic cheers from the audience, but also represented the kind of watered-down feminism that is easy to support in theory but provides no useful path for change.

In contrast, Common and John Legend’s acceptance speech for Best Original Song winner “Glory” (incidentally, this was the only award Selma took home) was perhaps the most powerful moment of the night. Legend’s statement that there are “more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery” was like a cold splash of water, and “’Selma’ is now because the struggle for justice is now,” seemed to bring the insulated awards ceremony starkly back to reality.

Though this year’s Academy Awards featured more small steps than giant leaps, it brought up plenty of important conversations about race and gender that America needs to have and take real action to confront.