It wasn’t supposed to go like that.
After unexpectedly re-arranging the schedule to push Best Picture up and let the acting categories shine, the Academy clearly wanted to send a message. With the foregone conclusion that Chadwick Boseman would posthumously take Best Actor for his work in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, it was going to definitively celebrate a young man who was taken from us far too soon after losing his battle with cancer last year.
An African-American man.
The significance of the moment was going to be a victory to end that night that would be both emotional and satisfying. After all, at a moment when Black culture is looking for heroes, a Chadwick victory would have been a symbolic statement in honour of a young man who had become a beacon of hope for many, sending viewers home with a truly feel-good moment.
Well, we all know how that went.
After Phoenix announced Anthony Hopkins as Best Actor to close out the show, the shock was palpable. The room was fairly quiet. Phoenix had to fumble through an awkward acceptance on Hopkins behalf as he was the only nominee not available. Of course, Twitter erupted. (In some ways, you almost feel bad for Hopkins. At home in Wales, even HE didn’t think he was going to win. If I were him, I likely would have slept through the ceremony as well.)
In a moment that felt like the reverse of the La La Land/Moonlight fiasco of a few years ago, the ‘feel-good’ finale completely backfired.
Within seconds, people took to their social media and responded accordingly. Outrage! Fury! Cancel! The response was completely understandable—and expected. After all, around this time, it’s almost tradition for people to take to the inter-webs to complain about the Oscars and the choices that they proclaim are ‘Best’. People decry from the rooftops that the films the Academy selects show their irrelevancy (and, sometimes, that’s a totally fair complaint). Comments like ‘this is why I don’t care about the Oscars’ flood social media with tsunami-like force.
But the irony is that same blow-up on the Twitter-verse shows that people still do care.
While people may either be happy or furious, the fact that the reactions to these awards are so strong suggests that there’s still an interest in the results. For over 90 years, the Academy Awards have been the ‘standard’ by which success in the industry has been measured. To win an Oscar is considered one of the highest honours in the industry and, even though culture has changed a lot in recent years (and continues to do so), there remains a respect for that golden statue that continues to endure. To win an Oscar still says something.
They matter because they matter to us.
The reason people were upset about Chadwick losing the award is not because Hopkins didn’t deserve it but rather that it meant something to them. Hopkins turned in the performance of the lifetime in the role but a Chadwick victory would have felt not only poignant but powerful. With his career still reaching his potential before his death, Chadwick still felt like someone that people could relate to, especially amongst the Black community. A win for him seemed like it would have felt like another win for them.
And it might have.
But, if the awards truly didn’t matter to anyone outside the industry, no one would have cared. There would have been no outcry or frustration. It would have simply passed on from the cultural zeitgeist and landed on the entertainment pages… not the front page…
The problem may be that we’ve given too much credibility to the Academy. Though filled with over 1000 industry professionals, with this responsibility comes the expectation that it will represent the values of the people and the time. The truth is that they don’t always. Yes, they strive for representation and want to speak the voice of a culture. That’s why these films matter as much as Marvel films or alien invasions. They connect with a heartbeat that speaks the cries of our world.
But they don’t always speak for you and I. How could they?
With this in mind, the loss by Chadwick shows that, maybe, we don’t need the Oscars to play the same role in our culture. The truth is that, while considered the highest heights of the industry, the loss to Hopkins does not take away from his performance (or career) in any way. So many of history’s best films and performances were never recognized by the Academy. Citizen Kane, Raging Bull, Do The Right Thing, Pulp Fiction and innumerable others were robbed of ‘Oscar glory’ yet remain the most influential films of the last century. (And let’s not forget Delroy Lindo from the list of snubs this year…)
Regardless of who the Academy chooses to take home the gold, Chadwick Boseman will be remembered.
He matters. And he’s as important as he was yesterday.
I admit it. I love the Oscars. I love the pageantry, the music and the speeches. Unlike many, I love the fact that winners use the platform to speak their hearts about issues that matter to them. (I mean, they’ve been given a voice. They should use it.) I even love my Oscar pool with friends.
Ultimately though, they don’t determine which films or performances matter most. Only the ones that mattered to these people. That’s why it doesn’t really matter in the end if Boseman posthumously took home the gold. His performance in Ma Rainey’s was a thing of brilliance and it will be remembered. (In fact, it should be remembered.) This year’s Oscars may have been the most diverse in the Academy’s history. Chloe Zhao. Daniel Kaluuya. Yuh-Jung Yoon. H.E.R. Soul. Jon Batiste. All of these winners from last night show that things are changing. This was not #OscarsSoWhite, even if it did feel like #OscarsSoWrong.
The loss by Boseman doesn’t change any of this… but it’s all anyone’s talking about.
Yes, it would have made an amazing story to see him cap off his young but incredible career with a win. It would have been an emotional moment for us all. But there’s a reason that they announce the winner by saying ‘the Oscar goes to…’ They don’t want the other nominees to feel as though they are someone lesser than the others.
Because they aren’t. Not Riz Ahmed. Not Boseman. None of them, regardless of category. They all achieved something great with their cinematic achievements. And, like Chadwick’s performance, their work lives on.
The Academy knows that. We may have forgotten it.