“[Purple Rain]” was a brilliant song, it probably wasn’t even nominated on some bullsh*t,” singer and actress Andra Day said during a Q&A segment with Lil Rel meant to provide some forced cheer during the 93rd Academy Awards.
And so Ms. Day, who was nominated for her raw performance as legendary jazz singer and activist Billie Holiday in The United States vs. Billie Holiday, summed up not just last night’s award ceremony, but how the institution of The Academy works in a nutshell. We see brilliant Black and brown storytellers continuously receive lip service about the promise of diversity, while many of the top prizes go to the same familiar white people.
Last night wasn’t a total wash for Black talent. Daniel Kaluuya won Best Supporting Actor for his role as Illinois Black Panther Party Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. Hairstylists Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson became the first Black women ever to win in the Best Hair and Make-Up category for their work on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Jon Batiste, along with Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, won for Best Original Score for the Pixar movie Soul. H.E.R. and Tiara Thomas became just the second and third Black women to win for Best Original Song for “Fight For You”, in collaboration with Dernst Emile II, which is on The Judas And The Black Messiah soundtrack. (Irene Cara was the first.)
And yet there were some significant, glaring snubs. LaKeith Stanfield was inexplicably nominated for Best Supporting Actor instead of Best Actor, which pretty much guaranteed the vote would be split between him and Kaluuya. While Judas And The Black Messiah was nominated for Best Picture, its director, Shaka King, was not nominated.
Even though Spike Lee’s Vietnam War drama Da 5 Bloods was kind of a mess tonally, Delroy Lindo gave one of the most compelling performances of 2020 in that film as Paul, a veteran suffering from unacknowledged PTSD. Lindo wasn’t nominated at all. And let’s talk about how the entire run of show was re-configured to feature the Best Actor category last instead of the usual Best Picture category, teasing a posthumous win for the late Chadwick Boseman, only for the award to go to Anthony Hopkins. This snub feels all the more egregious knowing that an NFT of Boseman’s likeness was included in a swag bag for the nominees, which feels more like gross exploitation rather than commemoration.
Black women in particular are shortchanged and taken for granted by this institution, time and time again. Regina King wasn’t nominated for her feature directorial debut One Night In Miami. (It is worth noting that no Black woman has ever been nominated for Best Director in Academy history.) Viola Davis and Andra Day were nominated for Best Actress, and that is the first time two Black women have been nominated in that category since 1973, when Cicely Tyson and Diana Ross were nominated for Sounder and Lady Sings The Blues. Davis completely embodied the brash and bold Ma Rainey, giving a kind of lived-in performance that is larger than life and yet simultaneously relatable and down to earth. And yet the prize went to Frances McDormand for her role in Chole Zhao’s Nomadland. McDormand already has three other wins for Best Actress, something a Black actress can seemingly only dream of at this point.
Neither Garrett Bradley nor Sophia Nahli Allison picked up an award for their documentaries TIME and A Love Song For Latasha, both of which push the limits of the documentary format while paying homage to the inner lives and loves of Black girls and women.The two documentaries, although different in their approaches, also point to a way of exploring trauma without exploiting it.
Writer, director, and actress Radha Blank somehow, some way wasn’t even nominated for her stunning and hilarious debut comedy The Forty-Year-Old Version, which was easily one of the best and most refreshing movies to be released last year. Nicole Behaire and her layered, subtle work in the working-class family drama Miss Juneteenth was also not acknowledged with a nomination.
Even though so much was different about the Oscars this year—the Union Station venue, the social distancing, the longer campaign season, more virtual segments, a pared down red carpet—too much of it remained the same. To paraphrase Mia Neal, I would like to see a day where Black people, and in particular Black women and nonbinary folks working as storytellers and crew in this particular industry aren’t seen as unusual or groundbreaking, but it will just be normal to acknowledge and reward their work. Because if it doesn’t happen, the Academy will continue to shuffle towards irrelevance.
Danielle A. Scruggs is a photo editor, freelance photographer, and writer based in Chicago, IL. She is also the founder of Black Women Directors, a digital library dedicated to highlighting the work of Black women and non-binary filmmakers across the world.