The Oscars Really Used Chadwick Boseman For Views

Photo: Jason Merritt/Getty Images.
Over the course of its 93 years, the Academy Awards have often been marked by upsets that have left both stars and viewers at home baffled. Last night's show stayed true to tradition, with its Best Actor win providing an Oscar snub so violent that it sent Twitter spiraling. But what's troubling about Chadwick Boseman's loss isn't just the disregard for the the actor's very last onscreen performance. Rather, it's the way that the Academy exploited his death and his legacy to ensure views of the televised program.
When Boseman passed in August 2020 after a long battle with colon cancer, the world was rocked by the tragedy. For years, the actor had kept his illness silent as he worked on physically-strenuous projects like Black Panther, 21 Bridges, and Da 5 Bloods, pulling off performances so effortless that viewers and colleagues were none-the-wiser about his deteriorating condition. His death last year was a blow on all fronts, leaving a gaping hole in Hollywood that is still felt months later.
The subsequent release of Netflix original film Ma Rainey's Black Bottom was marked by bittersweet feelings; the fictionalized account of blues icon Ma Rainey (played by Viola Davis) brought together two Hollywood giants once again, but it was also the last project that Boseman would ever work on before his death. It gained critical acclaim, with many confident that Boseman's role as the effervescent, ambitious trumpeter Levee Green would earn him his first Oscar win for Best Actor in a notably stacked category. But we all know how that went.
On Oscar night, the show was actually...not that bad, a pleasant surprise after a year of watching celebrities give their socially distant acceptance speeches on Zoom. Daniel Kaluuya won his first Oscar and talked about his parents' sex lives, and we got to see Minari's Youn Yuh-Jung roasting Brad PittGlenn Close even did "Da Butt!" Unfortunately, things took a sharp left turn at the end of the night, when the show producers switched up the traditional program. In a strange move that no one saw coming, the Best Picture winner was announced (congrats to Chloé Zhao and Nomadland!) penultimately for the first time ever, leaving the big moment of the night to the winner of the very tight Best Actor race.
It was a surprise switch-up, but at the time, it seemed like a showman's choice, because Boseman was thought to be a lock after winning a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award this year. Perhaps it was the Oscars' way of poetically paying tribute to the fallen star, giving him and his widow Taylor Simone Ledward the opportunity to close out the final chapter of Boseman's career in a blaze of glory with the win his first Oscar. Instead, the reality was disturbingly different, and we were faced with Joaquin Phoenix sullenly announcing that Anthony Hopkins had won the Oscar for Best Actor for his lead role in The Father. The end.
Fans were stunned by the abrupt, anti-climactic close. The lineup change was unnecessary in every way; not only did it take away from the history-making importance of Zhao's win, it also meant that the Oscars had wrapped up with no real recognition of one of the industry's most beloved stars after leading us to believe that he would be honored somehow. Much of the buzz around the show was centered on Boseman — attendees even received a solid gold NFT (non-fungible token) of the Black Panther star's head in their gift bags — but his final performance was left hanging.
Hopkins, God bless him, wasn't present at the event — he was fast asleep in Wales —  and couldn't give his acceptance speech until later. In it, he thanked the Academy and also recognized Boseman, mourning the loss of the great actor.
"I want to pay tribute to Chadwick Boseman, who was taken from us far too early," said the 83-year-old from a field. Besides the In Memoriam, it would be one of the only times that Boseman would be recognized.
The most painful thing about Boseman's final loss isn't even so much that he lost. After all, his category was beyond competitive; he was up against Hopkins, Riz Ahmed (Sound of Metal), Steven Yeun (Minari), and Gary Olman (Mank). What's most distressing is that the Oscars played on the cultural significance of his passing and his legacy, and hinged one of the night's biggest moments on it, knowing that many of us were sticking around to see how Boseman would be honored. Sure, producers couldn't have known whose name was in that envelope, but they certainly knew exactly how much Boseman's death had rocked the acting community, and the world at large. Hence the most likely reason that the order of the most anticipated categories was switched.
It's disappointing but not at all surprising — just another reminder that the Academy (and really just Hollywood in general) still doesn't get it. People want for their work to mean something and for their contributions to the craft of filmmaking to be celebrated in a meaningful and tangible way. Performative actions like rattling off the nominees' favorite movie snacks and childhood memories, or giving guests a swag bag with a million-dollar bust of Boseman's head aren't the change that professionals in this industry have been asking for by any means. Clearly, there's still so much more work to be done, and it has to start with the people behind the scenes.
Another year, another awards season of missing the point. Maybe we'll try again in 2022.

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