It’s Time We Start Refusing To Meet The Oscars In The Middle

Photo: Courtesy of ABC.
The 2021 Oscars, like Tyler Perry’s speech, almost had me. 
The broadcast started with a beaming Regina Thee King doing what she does best: being flawless. The cold open relied on King’s sheer formidable presence alone with a live shot of her strutting into Union Station in Los Angeles, the human embodiment of an opening credits scene. It worked — I was rapt. There was a sense of  hope that this show might actually leave me with a feeling other than rage, unlike Oscar ceremonies  past. King’s monologue included a reference to the Derek Chauvin verdict and the trial where he was convicted of murdering George Floyd. “If things had gone differently this past week in Minneapolis, I might have traded in my heels for marching boots,” she said. “I know that a lot of you people at home want to reach for your remote when you feel like Hollywood is preaching to you, but as a mother of a Black son, I know the fear that so many live with, and no amount of fame or fortune changes that.” King, as she does, set the bar high. 
From there, the 93rd Academy Awards had me wishing more artists had traded in their designer shoes for their proverbial “marching boots.” Perry, if he even owns a pair, decided to leave his at home while accepting the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award. After starting out strong with a moving story about a homeless woman who, coincidentally, just wanted a pair of shoes, Perry called for the audience to “refuse hate” and said, "I refuse to hate someone because they are Mexican or because they are Black, LGBTQ. I refuse to hate someone because they are a police officer. I refuse to hate someone because they are Asian." As many people on Twitter pointed out, one of these things is not like the other. A police officer is not a part of a marginalized or oppressed community. Policing is a chosen profession, not an ethnicity or identity. Police officers are built, not born. Casting out hate is important, of course, but conflating these groups of people is not only careless, but it’s also dangerous. It justifies the lazy false equivalency between “Blue Lives Matter” and Black Lives Matter. This language favors reform as opposed to abolition. Any “hate” people are directing at police officers is because they engage in state-sanctioned violence, disproportionately killing the very groups Perry is preaching that people should not hate. He should have been speaking to police officers instead of trying to protect them. But when police exist to protect rich people’s property over human lives, it’s no wonder Perry chose class over conscience. 

“Change” does not happen “in the middle.” Change happens when we finally start refusing to accept that our humanity is up for debate.

The ending of Perry’s speech, like the conclusion of the Oscars, left me livid. Perry implored us to “stand in the middle because that's where healing happens… that's where change happens, it happens in the middle,” he said. I would just like to ask Tyler Perry where the middle is on anti-Black racism. Where is the middle on transphobia? Where is the middle on anti-Asian hate crimes? Where is the middle on the murder of Black and brown folk at the hands of police? “Change” does not happen “in the middle.” Change happens when you finally start refusing to accept that our humanity is up for debate. Change happens when you stop believing there is a middle ground when it comes to the murder and dehumanization of our communities. Revolutions “don’t happen by accident”. But this idea of healing by meeting in the middle is exactly the kind of sentiment the Academy loves to celebrate. This ideal lets racist white people off the hook and lets them feel warm and fuzzy about treating the value of Black life as a gray area. This is the governing body who gave Green Book a Best Picture award, remember? It’s the same one who kicked homeless people out of Union Station so they could hold a fancy event that awarded a movie about homelessness as Best Picture (making Perry’s story about homelessness even more sickeningly ironic). It was no surprise to me that Perry’s “meet in the middle” speech was met with a standing ovation. 
However, one of the biggest surprises of the Steven Soderbergh-produced broadcast was its missing film clips. A show known in past years for endless movie montages and onslaughts of meticulously-chosen scenes to showcase the acting nominees’ talent was lacking both until about halfway through. The absence of actually seeing the nominated films was strange, but it also revealed the larger missing element: a rebellious spirit. 
Even aside from Perry’s, speeches that mentioned social justice, especially when it came to the brutal injustices dealt to Black people in America, were light on protest language. H.E.R. won her first Oscar for Best Original Song and gave a very pretty speech saying in part, “knowledge is power, music is power and I will always fight for what is right.” What exactly is right though? Best Live Action Short winner Travon Free was more specific. “Today the police will kill three people...on average the police in America every day kill three people, which amounts to about a thousand people a year,” he said. “And those people happen to disproportionately be Black people." He went on to plead — presumably to white people watching —  “Please don't be indifferent to our pain.” Call me cynical, but after the last year, we shouldn’t still have to beg for our humanity on national television. Again, I would like to ask Tyler Perry, where’s the middle ground on what Free said in his speech? Free’s acceptance was the best of the night, but I still wish he pushed a little harder. Instead of pleading for non-Black people not to be indifferent, I wish he’d called on them to actively participate in our liberation. I wish he’d said the words, “Defund The Police.” 
By the time the show got to the Best Picture nominations, it was jarring not only to finally see some clips, but also to see which snippet the producers chose to highlight from Judas and the Black Messiah. In the clip, Black Panther Chairman Fred Hampton (Daniel Kaluuya) is giving an impassioned speech about how revolutions can’t die. “You can murder a liberator, but you can’t murder a liberation. You can murder a revolutionary, but you can’t murder a revolution,” he shouts as Hampton. “You can murder a freedom fighter, but you can’t murder freedom.” Kaluuya earned his Oscar in the delivery in this powerful clip alone, but set against the backdrop of an awards show that pats itself on the back for platitudes while snuffing out any signs of revolution within its own institution (see the story of how The Academy ended the career of actress Sacheen Littlefeather, who turned down Marlon Brando’s Best Actor Oscar for him in 1973), it felt hollow and impudent. 

These exceptions aren’t real progress. Hollywood isn't really going to change. It just wants us to think it will. 

And now for my Issa Rae “deep, heavy, negro spiritual sigh,” because it’s time to talk about that ending. In a rare move for the Oscars broadcast, Best Picture was not the final category of the night. It came before the big acting awards so the final Oscar of the night would go to the Best Actor. The late Chadwick Boseman was heavily favored to win the category and so, the Oscars basically used his legacy to get people to stay tuned until the end. In a surprise twist the producers clearly didn’t see coming, Boseman lost to 83-year-old Anthony Hopkins for his role in The Father.  I’m not going to get into all the ways this snub was disrespectful to Boseman’s legacy and to the fans who were watching the Oscars to feel the closure and catharsis of our superhero getting his final flowers. I’ll just say that this outcome, and the fact that the last time the Best Actor and/or Actress went to Black people was in 2006 (Forest Whitaker) and 2002 (Halle Berry and Denzel Washington) respectively, is a testament to how much the Oscars are truly in their flop era. Hollywood may try to hide behind “making history” and how “diverse” the winners were this year (Chloe Zhao became the first woman of color to win Best Director, and Mia Neal and Jamika Wilson are the first Black women to win for hair and makeup), but it’s been 93 years—these exceptions aren’t real progress. Hollywood isn't really going to change. It just wants us to think it will. 
As I sat on my couch with my head in my hands in silence after Hopkins’ abrupt win, processing what had just happened, I was pissed — mostly at myself. I know better than to trust the institution of The Oscars; the one set up to add more barriers for Black creators to secure funding or breakthrough in Hollywood. These golden statues can be tickets to career stability, creative freedom, or just a plain-old deserved celebration, but when they are rarely afforded to Black artists, the system becomes even more rigged against them. Every year, we show up hopeful this one may be different. We attempt to meet the Academy in the middle. Please don’t be indifferent to our pain, we plead. 
Maybe it’s because of the year we’ve had. Maybe I’m just even more convinced after that mess of a broadcast that the Oscars are as irrelevant of an institution as the ones that “serve and protect” America. Maybe I’m just tired. As a fan of film and a firm believer that movies can move minds and make people feel less alone, my bar is as high as the one Regina King sets with her very presence. But I’m no longer willing to beg for our humanity or to appeal to be honored by an outdated awards show that continues to disrespect Black talent (with a few well-placed exceptions).
There’s no middle ground on Black excellence. You’re either on the side of Black inclusion, equity and freedom in Hollywood, or you’re not. We'll be closer to revolution, to liberation, to freedom, the moment we stop accepting these crumbs of "compromise."

More from Pop Culture

R29 Original Series