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The Oscars Used Black People As Props & It’s Not What We’re Here For

The Oscars don’t always fall during Black History Month, but in 2020, they did.
Janelle Monae opened the 92nd Academy Awards with a jazzy song-and-dance number and proudly belted out the words:
“Happy Black History Month” to kick off a ceremony that only acknowledged one Black person in the major acting categories (Cynthia Erivo’s nod for Harriet) and didn’t award any Black films, aside from the animated short Hair LoveI couldn’t tell if Monae was trolling the very show she was performing in or if she was there to act as a distraction from the awards’ glaring lack of diversity in its nominations. It felt like a way for the hostless Oscars to redeem themselves.
Dressed in Mr. Rogers’ famous red cardigan and singing a lovely rendition of “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood,” Monae descended from the stage into a sea of white nominees sitting front row, including Charlize Theron, Margot Robbie, and Tom Hanks. Monae tipped her hat to Hanks (literally placing her bowler hat on his head mid-song), who was nominated for his role as Mr. Rogers, and from there, it turned from a sweet moment with America’s Dad to a highly entertaining but devastatingly tone-deaf “celebration” of some of the year’s most egregiously-snubbed, Black-led films. Reworking her upbeat song “Come Alive,” Monae was joined on stage by backup dancers in costumes recreated from Queen & SlimDolemite Is My Name and Us. Other films were represented in the dance number, too  – Midsommar and Joker costumes were among the eclectic group of dancers. But it was the nerve of the Academy to trot out the image of Black films and the actors they ignored (Daniel Kaluuya and Jodie Turner-Smith, Eddie Murphy, Lupita Nyong’o) in an attempt to appear relevant when it continually refuses to acknowledge Black art, that had my hands shaking with rage.
By the time Billy Porter popped onstage to do a rendition of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing,” I was ready to throw my laptop across the room. It was like the Academy thought, what’s better than one Black, queer artist to try to save our reputation? Two! The message was that Black performers are good enough to entertain a crowd, but not enough to actually reward their talent. When Monae proclaimed that she was “so proud to stand here as a Black, queer artist telling stories,” that the night would “celebrate the art of the storyteller” and “those voices long deprived,” I wondered what show she was talking about. This was before Hair Love’s win, Parasite’s four-Oscar sweep, including Best Picture, and Taika Waiti becoming the first person of Maori Indigenous descent to win an Oscar. Those exceptions are great and signal a tiny step in the right direction for people of color in Hollywood, but the Oscars still have a long way to go. And Black creators in Hollywood still have their own set of specific challenges in the industry.
On paper, this year’s Oscars ceremony was supposed to be the whitest it’s been in years, with films starring majority white casts — 1917JokerOnce Upon A Time in Hollywoodand The Irishman — leading the nominationsThe show seemed to try to course-correct by front-loading POC presenters at the top (Monae was followed by Rock, who was followed by Mindy Kaling, then an inexplicably backstage Kelly Marie Tran, and Questlove) and making self-referential digs at its overwhelming whiteness.
“Cynthia did such a great job in Harriet hiding Black people that the Academy got her to hide all the Black nominees,” Rock joked alongside Steve Martin. “Cynthia, is Eddie Murphy under this stage?” — a reference to Murphy’s snub for his hilarious return to form in Dolemite Is My Name. Martin reminded everyone that it’s taken 92 years for the Oscars to go from no Black acting nominees to one. In 2020, the Academy may not have known how to nominate Black people, but it seemed to understand that Black culture is the most popular art form in America.
The ceremony was also very hip-hop heavy. Eminem gave a performance of “Lose Yourself’ from 8 Mile (17 years after he became the first rapper to win an Oscar — to date, he remains the only solo rapper to win Best Original Song) and Utkarsh Ambudkar (you may recognize him from The Mindy Project, Pitch Perfect, or Brittany Runs a Marathon) showed up to “recap the show and MC, for a bunch of nominees who don’t look like me,” he rapped. Again, the Academy used Black culture and self-deprecation to make itself feel better for being an institution rooted in racism and misogyny. The Academy is still 84% white and 68% male, despite its very recent attempts to diversify its membership.
I found the show’s attempts at inclusivity to be hollow and self-serving, but others saw them as a sliver of change. During the broadcast, Insecure star Natasha Rothwell tweeted, “I applaud the diversity effort put forth by the producers of tonight’s show,” she wrote. “It’s a part indictment of the homogeneity of tonight’s nominees, part admission of guilt and part apology–– but it’s all sound and fury signifying nothing if the Academy itself doesn’t diversify.”
She’s not wrong. Part of the diversity we saw in the performers and presenters was orchestrated by Oscars producer Stephanie Allain, a Black woman. Maybe through some of the moments, we saw last night, Allain was trying to hold the Academy accountable. Sure, you could argue that the alternative – making the presenters as white as the nominees – would have been worse, but I would counter that the alternative should be to make sure that the whole awards show is reflective of the audiences who love films.
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