The Academy Rarely Rewards An Actor Who Has Died

Producers Bet On A Chadwick Boseman Win, And Were Left With Egg On Their Faces

I admit there were only two reasons I sat through the #Oscars last weekend. One was to see if Chloe Zhao would become only the second woman to win a Best Director Oscar, which she did, and the second, to see if they would give Chadwick Boseman, who died of cancer last August, a rare posthumous Best Actor award for Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

I had assumed their victories, if they would win, would come toward the end of the show. The producers thought that was true at least of Boseman. In a confusing, abnormal program, they tossed aside the typical Best Director-Best Actor-Best Actress-Best Picture routine and awarded the directing award earlier in the broadcast and the Best Picture award before the lead acting categories. The goal was clear, engineer a finish to the telecast in which the final two awards are won by black actors, Viola Davis and the late Chadwick Boseman, giving the news media a “Oscars celebrates black roles” narrative to run with after the event.

It flopped massively.

Frances McDormand won her third Best Actress Oscar for Nomadland giving a few seconds-long speech, and the show ended with Anthony Hopkins winning Best Actor, and not being present, presenter Joaquin Phoenix accepted it on his behalf and left the stage, abruptly ending the show. The unexpected, anti-climatic ending was mocked on social media. A nasty side effect of this was Best Director was given out early in the show, denying Zhao her chance to shine during the show’s finale (although she later appeared with the cast during the Best Picture acceptance.) With the COVID-19 Pandemic preventing any of the typical afterparties, the post-shows were awkward messes. Hosts searched hilariously for a narrative to focus on, without addressing the elephant in the Dolby Theater, that they had screwed up what they thought would be an easy lay up on the progress of racial equality in Hollywood. Best Supporting Actress winner Yuh-Joong Youn provided some relief with her funny, heartwarming acceptance speech, and some focus was put on Zhao’s win and Best Supporting Actor winner Daniel Kalyuua, who won for his role as Black Panther leader Fred Hampton.

For years, the Academy has been criticized for its slighting of black actors and actresses, something that critics say extends to the entire Hollywood community. For years it seemed the breaks actors and actresses of color got were playing roles that either couldn’t be cast by white people, or roles that reinforce racist stereotypes. Hollywood producers and movie studios saw movies with black casts as niche films that wouldn’t be profitable in wide release, so they wouldn’t put money and time into them, denying them not only chances at being blockbusters, but also the key marketing and promotions often required to get an actor or actress onto the Oscar stage.

As Viola Davis said in her 2015 Emmy acceptance speech, “you can’t win [an award] for roles that aren’t there.”

In fact, before the year 2000, only six black actors and actresses had ever won acting Academy Awards, and only won in a lead role; Sidney Poitier in 1963’s Lillies in the Field. That slowly began to change over time, though not as fast as many African-Americans in Hollywood would have liked. Since 2011, seven black actors and actresses have won Oscars, but none in lead roles. Those roles included a domestic servant (Octavia Spencer in The Help); a slave (Lupita N’yongo in 12 Years A Slave); black historical figures (Mahershala Ali in Green Book) or black characters written decades ago by black writers (Viola Davis in August Wilson’s Fences and Regina King in James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk).

The ending of this year’s Oscars is the perfect expression of a patronizing and condescending woke white self-own

Though an improvement, there remains much criticism lobbed at the Academy for its continued perceived snubs of black acting roles. During several broadcasts in the 2010s, #OscarsSoWhite became a trending hashtag, and the Academy has had to try to make amends with actors and actresses of color over past snubs and omissions. Every attempt to improve the situation, however, only tends to backfire because it isn’t focused on the problem itself. Take their decision to award Moonlight best picture in 2017, only to have Warren Beatty go out there and award the wrong picture, or send Kevin Costner out to introduce the film Hidden Figures about the black women scientists who behind the scenes helped America win the Space Race, only to mix it up with Fences.

Last Sunday’s attempt to contrive a fairytale ending out of an unlikely scenario only added salt to the wounds.

A Boseman win wasn’t assured, nor was even likely. Though he won the Golden Globe, Hopkins won the BAFTA, the British version of the Oscars, which are often predictive of how the Oscars go. Further, posthumous wins are rare, even when deceased actors are nominated. Since the Oscars began in 1929, only eight actors have been posthumously nominated for acting awards. They include James Dean who was nominated twice, once each for East Of Eden and Giant, in the two years after his died in 1955. Only two actors have ever won after they passed. The first was Peter Finch for Best Actor in 1977 for Network, in which he played the eccentric, aging news anchor Howard Beale who uttered the now famous quip “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” The second was Heath Ledger, who won Best Supporting Actor in 2009 for his performance as the classic Batman villain, the Joker, in The Dark Night. Both were iconic roles that generated Oscar buzz even before the actors untimely and sudden deaths. Finch died two months before the 1977 Oscars, where he was already the odds-on favorite to win Best Actor anyway. Network nearly swept all the acting categories that year, with Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight winning in the female categories.

The fact that the Academy rarely honors dead actors with posthumous awards made the decision to design the Oscar telecast last Sunday around the possibility of Boseman winning even more puzzling.

Having seen Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, while its certainly an excellent performance by Boseman, it didn’t strike me as groundbreaking to the level of Ledger’s “Joker” or Finch’s “Howard Beale,” and while maybe it didn’t have to be, adjusting for the reality that black actors have to nail the performance more assuredly than white actors to be awarded the Oscar (think of performances like N’yongo’s “Patsey” in 12 Years A Slave or Mo”Nique’s “Mary” in Precious), Boseman’s performance didn’t strike me as living up to that level. If anything, it was Davis who carried the film and was more deserving of a win.

So why did Oscar producers do it? Well, like everything else woke liberals do, they choose the easy solution, hoping that once again style would serve as a replacement for substance and get them out of a jam.

The ending of this year’s Oscars is the perfect expression of a patronizing and condescending woke white self-own. You build everyone up for a glorious expression of racial justice and equality and then it blows up in your face because SURPRISE! platitudes are not enough. The end result was a mess. Poor Anthony Hopkins, who didn’t travel from Wales to Los Angeles for the awards believing Boseman would win, made a taped message honoring his late fellow nominee and Boseman’s family had to awkwardly come out and congratulate Hopkins in order to quiet Twitter critics who had aimed their fire at the 83-year-old winner. Making the matter even worse, entertainment reporters broke the story that Hopkin’s co-star in the winning film The Father, Olivia Colman, was denied a request to accept his Oscar on his behalf.

Platitudes can only go so far, and they are poor substitute for true change. They are nice in the moment, but they don’t repair decades of inequality and lack of opportunity. The goal should not to engineer grand performances at award shows in order to get good Tweets and headlines, it should be to reward black talent not with marketing ploys, but with roles and scripts that allow them to truly show off their skills without concern about box office totals and concerns about niche marketing. We’re already on our way on the small screen. As Davis implied in her Emmy win for How To Get Away With Murder, there is no way a middle-aged black woman would have been chosen for that role twenty years ago. The Academy has also announced some changes aimed at being more inclusionary starting next year that activists hope will move the needle.

Perhaps in the new post-COVID world where the theater is not the only place to see a movie, and studios are less concerned with the demographics of who is sitting in the theater, this may be the catalyst we need for long-awaited change.


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