This year’s Oscars were felled by the Academy’s arrogance

This could have been one of the best ceremonies in recent memory, writes Clarisse Loughrey. Then the Academy made the deeply cynical, and ultimately exploitative, decision to switch up its running order

Tuesday 27 April 2021 08:42 BST
The late Chadwick Boseman turned in a delicate, emotionally pulsating performance in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’
The late Chadwick Boseman turned in a delicate, emotionally pulsating performance in ‘Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom’ (David Lee/NETFLIX )
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Of all the historic Oscars disasters – mixed-up envelopes, mispronunciations, an opportunistic streaker – this is the first that doesn’t feel like an innocent mistake. Instead, the Academy has been felled by its own arrogance. This year should have been remembered for the boundaries that were broken, including the highest percentage of female nominees and the most substantial representation of people of colour in the acting categories. It was also an in-person awards ceremony staged in the middle of a pandemic, with many in the room gathering together for the first time after a year of Zoom sessions and social isolation.

The producers of this year’s ceremony, headed by director Steven Soderbergh, needed only to lean into the Oscars as a celebration of the power of film – specifically its capacity for comfort, inspiration, and guidance through difficult times – and this could have been one of the best ceremonies in recent memory. For a while, it was. Then the Academy made the deeply cynical, and ultimately exploitative, decision to switch up its running order so it could pat itself on the back for all the progress made. Best Picture wasn’t kept until last, but was brought ahead of the lead acting categories. The decision was seemingly made with one conclusion in mind: that the late, and dearly missed, Chadwick Boseman would win for his performance in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, and that his co-star Viola Davis would become the second Black actress to win for a leading role.

But that did not happen. Frances McDormand scooped up Best Actress for Nomadland, leaping up on stage to give a short, sweet, and reliably eccentric speech – half of it dedicated to the suggestion that this year should have had a karaoke bar (she’s right). Then Joaquin Phoenix, who won last year and loathes attention, came on to casually announce that Anthony Hopkins had won Best Actor for The Father. Hopkins, who at age 83 is now the oldest acting winner in history, was unavailable. And, unconvinced he’d win, he also failed to prepare any kind of formal speech for the Academy. Phoenix simply said thank you on his behalf, left the stage, and that is how this year’s Oscars ended. It wasn’t only anti-climatic – it felt like someone had killed the lights and given up.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, I wrote of one of my great fears about the Oscars – that there’s a tendency towards complacency and self-satisfaction. Perhaps there was some genuine desire to honour Boseman, but it mostly smacks of misguided opportunism. After all, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag was created specifically in response to a lack of diversity in the acting categories. And here was a year where, for once, there was a plausible chance that all four winners would be actors of colour (Daniel Kaluuya and Yuh-jung Youn were both awarded in the supporting categories). The Oscars wanted the opportunity to pat themselves on the back, dominate the headlines, and declare racism solved.

McDormand and Hopkins put in beautiful performances – there’s no doubt about that. And there would have been room to celebrate them, while acknowledging how actors of colour are still more likely to be recognised as supporting figures rather than leads. Kaluuya and Lakeith Stanfield both ended up nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Judas and the Black Messiah, creating the bizarre assertion that the film had no main character. There would have been room, too, to sit with the undoubtedly painful exclusion of Boseman, whose legacy not only includes the kind of delicate, emotionally pulsating work of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, but the ability to embody the Black Panther – a superhero character that continues to inspire around the world. But all that disappointment was compounded by the Academy’s decision to mess with its running order. It retroactively spoiled a night that – for a moment – felt honest, vulnerable, and pure.

Chloé Zhao became the second woman ever to win Best Director, while her film Nomadland nabbed Best Picture. And, yes, the jazz lounge layout and roving, documentary style of shooting – which often meant shoving the camera right into the sweaty, uncomfortable face of some poor tech nominee – was all very odd. But that intimacy also lent itself to a genuine sense of community amongst the nominees – a reminder that the Oscars can be more than hollow glamour, but an opportunity to celebrate hard work and ingenuity.

I loved when Steven Yeun shared an anecdote about seeing Terminator 2: Judgment Day as a child; when Kaluuya was so overwhelmed with gratitude that he ended up thanking his parents for having sex and creating him in the first place; when McDormand reminded everyone that these films deserve to be seen in the precious dark of the cinema. Winners spoke out about police brutality, gun violence, and the continuing fight for democracy in Hong Kong.

The Academy’s greatest mistake is their belief that progress can be both quick and easy. But the best parts of this year’s ceremony reminded us that the path to progress is not just through individual action, but through conversation. And this year’s Oscars needed that.

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