For Black folks watching the 95th Academy Awards, there weren’t many chances for surprises. We knew there wouldn’t be a Black winner in Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and International Film because on nomination morning, when the primary drama occurred, the Academy failed to nominate The Woman King, Saint Omer, or Till — almost guaranteeing the few remaining mysteries reserved for the actual ceremony could only offer disappointment.
How often would the slap by Will Smith, last year’s disgraced Best Actor winner for King Richard, be used as a punchline? Would any mention be made of the Andrea Riseborough controversy? Would any of the few Black nominees — Ruth E. Carter for Costume Design, Camille Friend for Makeup and Hairstyling, Tems, Rihanna, and Ryan Coogler for song, and Angela Bassett for Best Supporting Actress, all for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — take home an Oscar?
On the legacy of Hattie McDaniel, a history-making Oscar winner who sparked dreams yet to be realized
Whatever hopes existed were dashed quickly: Only Ruth E. Carter — the first Black woman to become a two-time Oscar winner — was honored. A despondent Bassett, with possibly the night’s biggest disappointment, lost to Jamie Lee Curtis for her role in the night’s biggest winner Everything Everywhere All At Once.
Curtis pulled out the victory while riding a wave of adulation for her nearly 50-year career. Bassett was similarly in the “she’s due” category. But, with both performances broadly embraced by critics and audiences alike, career narrative only worked for the former. While it’s unfair to say that white performers typically succeed with such a narrative (recently, Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Michael Keaton, and Sylvester Stallone have failed with that line of attack), Black women seemingly are never able to use the same appeal to nostalgia.
The problem at hand isn’t confined to Bassett losing. It’s the fact that Black aspirations, relegated to a small hill of crumbs, were only pinned to Bassett and Carter in the first place.
The mere mention of The Woman King and Till was treated as an olive branch, a consolation for snubs driven by misogynoir. Smith’s slap was used for a string of petty, nauseating jokes that felt harsher than Chris Rock’s stand-up special (the actual person who was hit); host Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t go a second without making a quip at Smith’s expense. With so few Black nominees and winners, continually elevating the low-hanging punchline of a Black winner from last year into the largest presence of Black talent this year presented an odd dissonance for an Academy once again fending off charges of anti-Blackness.
Neither last night’s bleak tally for Black folks (though it was an inspiring and historic night for Asian representation) or the campaign strategies that led to last night’s ceremony were ever wholly acknowledged during the broadcast. Even so, their remnants could be seen in categories where check-boxing pits one person of color against another to take or share one or two spots.
It’s seen in the lack of imagination to envision categories where the predominant skin color of the nominees isn’t white (Supporting Actress was by far the most diverse). It’s the inability to consider that a courtroom drama featuring two Senegalese women, or a biopic about a Black mother and Civil Rights leader sans onscreen Black trauma, or a historical epic centered around an African woman army aren’t “universal” stories built upon exceptional craft and deft care.
Bassett, I’m sure, will be fine. She is a wealthy, acclaimed actress. And it’s dangerous to attach too much of your self-worth to an awards show tailored to the elite. Still, I can’t erase the visceral clench I felt reach around my heart as a resolute, yet hurt Bassett — bedecked in a regal and refined purple dress — tried to hold her composure when she didn’t hear her name read.
Tweet may have been deleted
(opens in a new tab)
(Opens in a new tab)
Maybe because her loss is a perpetuation of the lie often told by Hollywood: It’s a meritocracy; if one pays their dues, they’ll receive their just rewards. Similar to The Woman King’s veteran director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Bassett has followed the rules. She plied her way through the 1990s — starring in classics from Malcolm X to her Oscar-nominated turn as Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It — then turned to hard-to-watch roles in hard-to-watch movies, before surging back with television in the American Horror Story franchise.
Ever the professional, she never turned in a lackluster performance, even when the material was less than her talents demanded. In the “they’re due” narrative, a performance like hers in Wakanda Forever, along with her track record as one of the great Black actresses of her generation, should’ve assured her a win. But it didn’t.
And now that the ceremony is finished, the Academy can finally move on from the slap. It can tout the deserved accomplishments of Everything Everywhere All At Once in a bid to paper over their shortcomings elsewhere. It’ll outwardly pretend to morally wrestle with misogynoir, at best offering superficial changes. It’ll surprise even less, but disappoint once more. The only questions left to answer between now and next year are whether 2024 will be better — and whether we should even care.