I did not expect Angela Bassett to win an Oscar for her role in Black Panther: Wakanda Forever. Her career is full of performances that have touched me personally, and the range of roles, from Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It to Queen Ramonda in Black Panther, has been extraordinary. But I have always been aware that the Academy rarely rewards Black actors for their work.
When Jamie Lee Curtis was announced as Best Supporting Actress for her role in Everything Everywhere All at Once last night, Bassett’s reaction to losing was not particularly noticeable. She did not clap, nor did she weep. Instead a small sad smile flickered briefly across her face. An awards season so soon after the loss of dear friends, including her co-star Chadwick Boseman, must have felt deeply bittersweet, and after months on the awards circuit, she knew going in that the deck was stacked against her. Still, like any of us, she likely dared to hope, dared to dream of being recognized and rewarded for her talent, for her work, for the sheer cultural impact she has had.
For many of us watching at home, her reaction was simply human. You see her absorb in real time what was perhaps almost a foregone conclusion for a Black actress, even one at her level.
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An Academy voter data analysis in 2014 that led in part to the viral hashtag #OscarsSoWhite by April Reign in 2015 laid bare just how much the voting was influenced by race and gender. Oscar winners were overwhelmingly white and male because the voters for the awards were overwhelmingly white and male. Even now, after attempts to expand Academy membership, 81% of voters identify as white and 67% as male, and they tend to take an interest in people like them. You see this reflected in the anonymous ballots that circulate before the awards as Academy voters glibly acknowledge that they didn’t bother to watch the performances of Black actors.
The history of public racism at the Oscars dates back to Hattie McDaniel, the first Black person to win an Oscar, being seated at a segregated table the year that she won for Best Supporting Actress. Progress has removed segregation in seating but not much else. After all, since awards were first handed out in 1929, only 22 Black actors have won, though many more including Bassett have been nominated over the decades.
To be Black in America is to be told early and often that you must work twice as hard to get half as far. For a Black American woman in the arts, that metric is closer to four times as it’s hard to simply stay afloat, never mind to succeed. This makes Ruth Carter’s history-making second win for costume design all the more noteworthy.
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It must have taken a Herculean effort for Bassett to carve out this space, to hold it and try to expand the road that McDaniel opened all those years ago. And to not be enough for reasons that are out of her control? It must be maddening. Today, I can’t help but wonder if people asking why she didn’t seem more enthusiastic for Curtis know that, in expecting her to clap through her pain rather than feel it, they are relying on social expectations set during Jim Crow that Black people be agreeable and non-challenging in public.
As we have seen with everyone from Michelle Obama to Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson to Viola Davis, successful Black women are expected to be warm and cheerfully gracious, no matter the offense. They are expected to “understand” instead of feel. It is dehumanization dressed up as civility. The real problem is not that Bassett did not cheer wildly. It’s that she and so many others are expected to pretend that the Academy is voting based on merit and not race and gender.
When Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors presented an award not long after Bassett’s loss, they acknowledged her from the stage. “Hey auntie,” they said. “We love you.” It was a lovely moment, a nod to what she means to so many of us, and especially young Black actors who have watched her career as they built theirs. But still, she deserves an Oscar.
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