For black people watching the 95th Academy Awards there weren’t many chances for surprises. We knew there would be no Black winners in the Best Picture, Director, Lead Actor, Lead Actress, and International Film categories because the Academy did not nominate on the morning of the nomination when the main drama was taking place The Woman King, Holy Omeror Until – almost guaranteeing the few remaining secrets reserved for the actual ceremony could only offer disappointment.
How many times would a slap in the face from Will Smith, last year’s disgraced Best Actor winner, be enough King Richard, to be used as a punchline? Would the Andrea Riseborough controversy be mentioned? Would be one of the few black nominees – Ruth E. Carter for costume design, Camille Friend for makeup and hairstyling, Tems, Rihanna and Ryan Coogler for the song, and Angela Bassett for best supporting actress – all for Black Panther: Wakanda Forever — take home an Oscar?
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All hopes were quickly dashed: Only Ruth E. Carter – the first black woman to win a double Oscar – was honored. Possibly the night’s biggest disappointment, a distraught Bassett lost to Jamie Lee Curtis for her role in the night’s biggest winner Everything everywhere at once.
Curtis clinched the win while riding a wave of admiration for her nearly 50-year career. Bassett was similar in the “She’s Due” category. But since both performances were embraced by critics and audiences alike, the career narrative only worked for the former. While it’s unfair to say that white performers typically succeed with such a narrative (of late Glenn Close, Amy Adams, Michael Keaton, and Sylvester Stallone have all failed with that line of scrimmage), black women never seem capable of the same stimulus to use nostalgia.
The problem at hand is not limited to Bassett losing. It’s the fact that black aspirations, relegated to a small mound of crumbs, were pinned primarily only to Bassett and Carter.
The mere mention of The Woman King And Until was treated like an olive branch, a consolation for misogyny-fueled snubs. Smith’s slap was used for a series of small, nauseating jokes that felt harder than Chris Rock’s stand-up special (the actual person being hit); Host Jimmy Kimmel couldn’t go a second without joking at Smith’s expense. With so few Black nominees and winners, the steady elevating of last year’s low-hanging punchline from a Black winner into this year’s largest presence of Black talent presented an odd dissonance for an academy that has once again fended off accusations of anti-Blackness.
Neither last night’s dismal tally for Blacks (although it was an inspirational and historic night for Asian representation) nor the campaign strategies that led to last night’s ceremony were ever fully acknowledged during the broadcast. Even so, their remnants could be seen in categories where, when ticked, one black woman competes against another to take or share a spot or two.
It is evident in the lack of imagination to imagine categories where the predominant skin color of the nominees is not white (supporting actress was by far the most diverse). It is the inability to consider that a courtroom drama starring two Senegalese women, or a biopic about a black mother and civil rights activist with no black onscreen trauma, or an epic historical centered around an African women’s army, are not “universal” stories, that build on exceptions, craftsmanship and diligence.
Bassett, I’m sure he’ll be fine. She is a wealthy, celebrated actress. And it’s dangerous to give too much of one’s self-worth to an awards show tailored for the elite. Still, I can’t erase the visceral spasm that gripped my heart as a feisty but hurt Bassett – adorned in a majestic and sophisticated purple gown – tried to keep her composure at not hearing her name read.
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Perhaps because her loss is a continuation of the lie Hollywood often tells: It’s a meritocracy; if anyone pays his dues, they will receive their just rewards. Similar to The Woman King‘S Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, Bassett played by the rules. She made her way through the 1990s – starring in classics by Malcom X on her Oscar-nominated role as Tina Turner in What does love have to do with it – then turned to hard-to-watch roles in hard-to-watch films before returning to television American Horror Story Franchise.
As a professional, she has never delivered a lackluster performance, even when the material was less than her talents demanded. In the narration “You are due” a performance like her in Wakanda forever, coupled with her track record as one of the great black actresses of her generation, should have secured her a win. But it didn’t.
And now that the ceremony is over, the academy can finally move on from the slap. It can announce the earned achievements of Everything everywhere at once in an attempt to cover up their shortcomings elsewhere. It will outwardly pretend to morally wrestle with misogyny and offer superficial changes at best. It will surprise even less, but once again disappoint. The only question that has yet to be answered by next year is whether 2024 will be any better — and whether we should even care.