Maybe last night you noticed the black ribbons some of the winners who took to Oscar's stage were wearing. Perhaps you spotted the above banner that played after the memorial segment and Bette Midler's predicted tear-jerking rendition of "The Wind Beneath My Wings," just before the commercial break. But watching the Academy Awards, you probably walked away having no idea how these things related, which is exactly the problem.
The ribbons and the slapped-on banner that promises a complete list of those in the film community who passed away this year, relate to Sarah Jones, who tragically died while shooting the Gregg Allman biopic Midnight Rider. She was a well-reputed second assistant camera operator on the production who was killed while doing her job. To many below-the-line crewmembers, her death has been not only needless, but also a call to action. An online campaign asked those attending the Academy Awards to wear a black ribbon in memory of Jones, and that she be added to the memorial list.
Now, you might think, 'Hang on, that montage is for people who have contributed to the legacy of Hollywood. Not just anyone gets on that list!' But this line of thinking, about who is "important enough" in Hollywood is exactly the kind of thinking that arguably led to Jones's death. As Variety put it,
"Jones has become a symbol, and there is growing sentiment within the industry that her death and the larger issue of safety will remain hot topics for a long time to come."
On February 20th, Midnight Rider was shooting on location in Savannah, Georgia. More specifically, the crew was shooting on active train tracks on a rail bridge when a train came barreling in. Seven people where injured as they attempted to flee the train's path. Jones was killed. Variety reports that crewmembers were told during shooting they'd have a minute to get off the bridge if they heard a train's whistle approaching. But some on the set have said it was more like 15 seconds.
Jones's death incited those below-the-line members of the American filmmaking community to decry unsafe working conditions. Reports that the producers didn't have permission to shoot on the rails made Jones's death seem all the more avoidable and senseless. THR reports crew unions and guilds are looking into the matter. But in the meantime, the online campaigns demanded that the Academy recognize the sacrifice their less famous contributors have and are making to make movies. It's not just for Jones, but for all the crewmembers who require a safer working environment.
The Twitter account Slates for Sarah posted screengrabs of attendees wearing the black ribbons throughout the night, but personally I was disappointed that no one especially famous dared don one. The support of sound editors, sound mixers, and documentarians is appreciated, of course. But just think of how safety on sets would become a focal point if someone like Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt wore a black ribbon, adding their spotlight to the cause.
In the end, the Academy Awards producers played it safe. Maybe they didn't dare add Jones to the montage, lest some more famous person's family rabble-rouse. So, they went with a simple banner that unfurled as many were already on their way to the kitchen for a snack or the bathroom to wipe away their post-memoriam tears in peace. It felt like a safe-half measure. But Jones's death shows a real problem about crew safety in the industry. Both this issue and Jones herself deserved more than this.
You can see the full Memoriam Gallery here.