We should’ve been talking about the historic wins from the 93rd Academy Awards. Chloé Zhao and Nomadland. Daniel Kaluuya for Judas and the Black Messiah. Yuh-Jung Youn for Minari. It was supposed to be a night of celebration, a poignant reminder of the power of film amid difficult circumstances and a world stricken by a pandemic. Instead, the Oscars chose chaos, and it reigned supreme.
The evening began with intimacy and sentiment. Long, uninterrupted speeches, documentary-style camerawork with the emphasis on individuals and their personal stories. There were notable flaws, but the narrative was shaped, designed and engineered to strip back the ‘razzle and dazzle’ and self-importance to present a human touch to its off-kilter proceedings. The Oscars became the very thing critics have the luxury and privilege of reviewing – a movie within itself, and overall, the experimental architecture by Steven Soderbergh mostly worked. But that was upended by a cynical, short-sighted moment of madness. The Best Director category became the early casualty, followed by the baited switch where Best Actor swapped with Best Picture as its final award.
The story predictably wrote itself. Chadwick Boseman crowned the winner, leaving a powerful and cathartic release of emotions for his achievements and the cultural legacy he left behind through his art. His win wouldn’t be seen as a token gesture of sympathy. Like Heath Ledger’s win for The Dark Knight, Boseman’s triumph would have been for the deserving richness encapsulated by his powerful performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. And after the #OscarsSoWhite campaign, the Academy showcased headlining statements aimed to re-write the discourse with regards to diversity, and as the frontrunner, Chadwick’s win would have placed him in a rare company of African American actors winning Best Actor (only 4 have won it during its 92-year history). But that narrative didn’t happen. In a tightly fought contest, Anthony Hopkins was named the victor, and it brought the entire ceremony to an abrupt halt.
There were no apologies in its aftermath. ABC exec Rob Mills later explained that the shift was a calculated risk but reasoned it still paid off because “everybody is talking about it.” Boseman’s death is still painfully raw for many (including myself), a life cut short due to colon cancer which affects millions of African Americans. It’s a hard realisation to take given the context, the secrecy of his struggles while continually pushing the elevation of Black stories. But there’s nothing more upsetting than the tonally deaf and out of touch showcase and admittance that his death was used for the sake of entertainment to close out the ceremony. The same narrative may have transpired had he won. But given how it ended, all the shift did was promote a false hope of a guaranteed win when there were none to be had.
There’s a reason why Best Picture is always last. For the biggest prize of the night, it’s a ‘final say’ and public declaration on what voters believe is the best film of the year. Screwing with the format not only damaged the prestige of that honour but subsequently contradict any supposed values the ceremony had left within its arsenal. The Academy showed their true colours; they made it about themselves – all for the self-congratulatory clout and ratings at the disservice of Chadwick’s memory, but at the expense of Anthony Hopkins and Zhao’s Nomadland, who were dragged into this embarrassing mess.
Based on his exquisite performance in The Father, no one is begrudging Hopkins for winning (and if you are, you need to check yourself). His non-attendance is understandable given his age, location, and lack of flexibility enforced by the event organisers. Upsets happen. But it’s the genuine lack of sincerity that took place. It’s the hastily-run in memoriam sequence, the uneasy commodification of Boseman’s image as an NFT (non-fungible token) and the misjudgement for an exploitive narrative, justifiably left viewers and fans in disgust and anger. The Academy producers can’t predict the future – that is obvious now. However, to respect and honour ‘one of their own’ as the final tribute in its proposed epitaph was insensitively handled. Boseman won’t get another opportunity at this. Death cruelly robbed him at his pinnacle best. And it’s a gut-wrenching feeling made more devastating by the knowledge that Boseman’s wife – Simone Ledward Boseman – was in attendance watching the awkwardness unfold. No consideration for her emotional wellbeing during a gruelling award circuit, all sacrificed for a ‘good TV’ moment. There were better ways of honouring Chadwick’s legacy, and the route the Academy chose wasn’t it.
Boseman, Hopkins and Zhao’s Nomadland are blameless in this matter. Even the Oscar voters and their flawed voting logic are not at fault (for once). The responsibility is directed at the organisers and the Academy producers for their carelessness. In an act so wrong and avoidable, it detracts away from the emotive journey of last year and robs two actors and a director of their respect, dignity, and celebration of their achievements.
In a profession that has spanned decades, Hopkins’ Oscar-winning career won’t be defined by this. Chadwick Boseman’s legacy, which propelled him as a cultural icon of our generation, won’t be reduced to a footnote. But the impact created is a moment – a moment etched into memory with repercussions on how we remember these awards. A moment that when time passes, Hopkins’ win will be overshadowed by the controversy that unfairly paints him as the villain. A moment where the Academy hedged their bets on Boseman, only for their decision to spectacularly backfire when he didn’t receive enough votes. A moment where a statement of diverse progress (albeit on a surface level) was in the spotlight with Zhao’s victory with Nomadland, only to be undercut by the proceeding events. The history books will remember this for all the wrong reasons. Like the Moonlight/La La Land fiasco, the memory is forever tied and tainted to the drama caused. And whether you agree with the results or not, that is a bitter pill to swallow.
The fallout will continue but the damage has been done. They deserved better, and that feeling will resonate for a long time.