Angela Bassett and the Paradox of Color

Angela Bassett was the picture of royalty long before she put on the crown of Queen Ramonda. Thirty years ago, she took on the iconic role of Tina Turner, the Queen of Rock and Roll. The year before that, she played the role of Malcolm X’s honorable wife, Betty Shabazz.

Last Sunday evening, Ms. Bassett, draped in regal purple, was poised to receive a long-awaited Oscar. And then, she didn’t.

The contortion of Ms. Bassett’s face became a point of contention, as some believed she was a “sore loser.” I contend that it’s not her expression that we should second guess, but the Academy Awards’ treatment of Black people in general.

I could talk about the segregated circumstance in which Hattie McDaniel received her Academy Award, but I honestly don’t have to travel that far back in time. I can simply look at the lack of nominations for Viola Davis in The Woman King and Danielle Deadwyler in Till as woefully apparent examples. I used the term “indignity” in a previous review of Till, and that term holds well in the present in light of recent news.

According to reports, an anonymous male Academy Award voter dished out a vitriolic response to the lack of nominations for “Till” and “The Woman King”:

“When they get in trouble for not giving Viola Davis an award, it’s like, no, sweetheart, you didn’t deserve it. We voted, and we voted for the five we thought were best,” he finishes. “It’s not fair for you to start suddenly beating a frying pan and say [they’re] ignoring Black people. They’re really not, they’re making an effort. Maybe there was a time 10 years ago when they were, but they have, of all the high-profile things, been in the forefront of wanting to be inclusive. Viola Davis and the lady director need to sit down, shut up, and relax. You didn’t get a nomination — a lot of movies don’t get nominations. Viola, you have one or two Oscars, you’re doing fine.”

This arrogance doesn’t happen in a vacuum, as evidenced by a decided lack of diversity among Oscar voters. #OscarsSoWhite as a hashtag, or rather, a way of life, doesn’t deter the prevailing culture of the Academy Awards. Why? Theirs is a monopoly of power far more than it is a menagerie of prestige. The final indignity for someone as accomplished as Ms. Bassett, or Ms. Davis, is to expect them to consent in silence.

Color should not be a paradox, and yet, it is – everything, everywhere, all at once. Michelle Yeoh won Best Actress for her role as Evelyn Quan Wang, and some outlets noted that she was only the second “woman of color” to win Best Actress at the Academy Awards. Respectfully, that homogenizing “woman of color” tagline did some heavy lifting.

Color, diversity – pejorative terms for some – can be burdens of responsibility for Black actors while being beacons of light for other nonwhite thespians. This is not unlike the realities of America’s various civil rights movements, which see profound gains for other marginalized groups while African-Americans suffer in anti-Black policy and practices. This is not an indictment of Everything Everywhere All At Once, as it was truly a beautifully eclectic movie with familial and existential themes. It is, once again, a challenge to Hollywood’s white lights and seemingly supremacist infrastructure. 

Ironically, a pair of pugilists provided solace to Ms. Bassett. “Hey Auntie,” Michael B. Jordan said slyly, a callback to his famous line as Killmonger in “Black Panther.” 

“We love you,” added Jonathan Majors, who shared the screen with Mr. Jordan in the wildly successful third installment of Creed. Their response was in lockstep with the attitude of Black Hollywood over many decades – graciousness in the face of grating results. The snubs are countless, and the face of that disrespect might be Denzel Washington. Even his Best Actor win for “Training Day” paled in comparison to setbacks after iconic performances in “Malcolm X” and “The Hurricane.”

Of course, color was never the problem. If anything, color has accentuated silver screen productions since the invention of Kinemacolor, then Technicolor and subsequent innovations. It is unfortunately ironic, then, that Hollywood’s biggest stage remains largely colorless. Further, the industry that is at times openly critical of “superhero movies” is largely silent when it comes to film’s greatest villain – racism.

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