How the Oscars and Grammys Thrive on the Lie of Meritocracy
I didn’t see it coming, but maybe I should have.
That refrain has been popping into my head repeatedly since learning that neither Viola Davis (“The Woman King”) nor Danielle Deadwyler (“Till”) was nominated for the best actress Oscar and that Andrea Riseborough and Ana de Armas had emerged as this year’s spoilers.
It came to mind again on Sunday night when the Grammys awarded Harry Styles’s “Harry’s House” album of the year, not Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.” Though she made history that night as the most Grammy-winning artist of all time, this was Beyoncé’s fourth shutout from the industry’s most coveted category and another stark reminder that the last Black woman to take home that award was Lauryn Hill — 24 years ago. This time the message was loud and clear: Beyoncé, one of the most prolific and transformative artists of the 21st century, can win only in niche categories. Her music — a continually evolving and genre-defying sound — still can’t be seen as the standard-bearer for the universal.
The music and movie industries differ in many ways, but their prizes are similarly determined by the predominantly older white male members of the movie and recording academies. Though both organizations have made concerted efforts in recent years to diversify their voting bodies in terms of age, race and gender, Black women artists, despite their ingenuity, influence and, in Beyoncé’s case, unparalleled innovation, continue to be denied their highest honors.
This trend is no indication of the quality of their work but rather a reflection of something else: the false myth of meritocracy upon which these institutions, their ceremonies and their gatekeepers thrive.
It is true that Black women, dating to Hattie McDaniel for “Gone With the Wind” (1939), have won the Academy Award for best supporting actress. And while it took a half-century for Whoopi Goldberg to receive an Oscar in the same category (for “Ghost”), over the past 20 years, seven Black women have won in this category, including Davis, and this year, Angela Bassett is a front-runner as well.
But, in a way, this is an example of rewarding the niche. What’s being honored is a character whose function is in service to a film’s plot and protagonist. She is neither a movie’s emotional center nor primarily responsible for propelling its narrative. Such heavy lifting is why I think it made sense for Michelle Williams, whom many considered a lock for an Oscar for best supporting actress for “The Fabelmans,” to campaign as a lead instead. “Although I haven’t seen the movie,” she told The New York Times, “the scenes that I read, the scenes that I prepped, the scenes that we shot, the scenes that I’m told are still in the movie, are akin to me with experiences that I have had playing roles considered lead.”
Interviews With the Oscar Nominees
- Kerry Condon: An ardent animal lover, the supporting actress Oscar nominee for “The Banshees of Inisherin” said that she channeled grief from her dog’s death into her performance.
- Michelle Yeoh: The “Everything Everywhere All at Once” star, nominated for best actress, said she was “bursting with joy” but “a little sad” that previous Asian actresses hadn’t been recognized.
- Angela Bassett: The actress nearly missed the announcement because of troubles with her TV. She tuned in just in time to find out that she was nominated for her supporting role in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.”
- Austin Butler: In discussing his best actor nomination, the “Elvis” star said that he wished Lisa Marie Presley, who died on Jan. 12, had been able to celebrate the moment with him.
In the past, academy voters might have said there weren’t enough Black women in leading roles to consider. But “Till” and “The Woman King” disprove that. So we’re left with other, more traditionally meritocratic arguments about who deserves to be nominated for best actress — the quality of the individual performance, the critical response to a film, and a decent budget to market and campaign for Oscar consideration. Yet this year, even those measures suddenly seemed to be thrown out the window.
Instead, in the case of Andrea Riseborough’s surprising nod for “To Leslie,” we saw a new Oscar strategy playing out before our eyes. A groundswell of fellow actors, including A-listers like Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Winslet and even Cate Blanchett, who would go on to be nominated herself, publicly endorsed Riseborough’s performance on social media, at screenings and even at a prize ceremony. Since only 218 of the 1,302 members of the academy’s acting branch needed to rank a candidate first to secure a nomination, in time, that momentum translated into a nomination upset. That, in turn, led to a backlash, a review by the academy to make sure none of its campaign guidelines had been violated, and a backlash to the backlash, with Christina Ricci and Riseborough’s “To Leslie” co-star Marc Maron calling out the academy for its investigation. “So it’s only the films and actors that can afford the campaigns that deserve recognition?” Ricci wrote in a now-deleted Instagram post. “Feels elitist and exclusive and frankly very backward to me.”
What fascinated me, however, was that what was being framed as a grass-roots campaign to circumvent studio marketing machines revealed another inside game. A racially homogeneous network of white Hollywood stars appeared to vote in a small but significant enough bloc to ensure their candidate was nominated.
And while that explains how an Oscar campaign can be both nontraditional and elitist, it also underscores the other obstacles that Black actresses, in particular, and actresses of color in general, have to surmount just to be nominated, let alone win. Gina Prince-Bythewood’s “The Woman King” was so critically praised for its filmmaking and masterly performances and was such a commercially successful film that Davis was expected (at the very least) to garner her third nomination in the best actress category.
In contrast, Andrew Dominik’s “Blonde,” starring de Armas, was so heavily panned for its brutal and sexist depiction of Marilyn Monroe that I assumed the prerelease chatter about her performance would have dampened by the time Oscar voting began. For more than any other film with a best actress contender this year, “Blonde” raises the question: Shouldn’t a protagonist have depth or multidimensionality for that actor’s performance to be noteworthy? As conceived by Dominik, Monroe merely flits from injury to injury, all in the service of making her downfall inevitable.
Such representations reveal another pattern: Oscar voters continue to reward women’s emotional excess more than their restraint. In most films with best actress nominations this year, women’s anger as outbursts is a common thread. “Tár” and even “To Leslie” examines the dangerous consequences of such fury; “The Fabelmans” positions it as a maternal and artistic contradiction for Williams’s character; and “Everything Everywhere All at Once” brilliantly explores it as both a response to IRS bureaucratic inefficacy and intergenerational tensions between a Chinese immigrant mother and her queer, Asian American daughter. “Blonde” is again an exception, for de Armas’s Monroe expresses no external rage but sinks into depression and self-loathing, never directing her frustration at the many men who abuse her.
Within that cinematic context, I wondered if it was possible to applaud Deadwyler for playing a character like Mamie Till-Mobley. Unlike the main characters of the other films, Till-Mobley, in real life, had to repress her rational rage over the gruesome murder of her son, Emmett, to find justice and protect his legacy. Onscreen, Deadwyler captured that paradox by portraying Till-Mobley’s constantly shifting self and her struggle to privately grieve her son’s death while simultaneously being asked to speak on behalf of a burgeoning civil rights movement. If words like “nuanced,” “subtle,” “circumspect” or “introspective” garner leading men Oscar attention (how else do we explain Colin Farrell’s nod?), female protagonists are often lauded for falling apart.
But even that assumes that all women’s emotions are treated equally, when the truth is that rage itself is racially coded. Both “Till” and “The Woman King” depict Black women’s rage as an individual emotion and a collective dissent, a combination that deviates from many on-screen representations of female anger as a downward spiral and self-destructive.
Commenting on such differential treatment, the “Till” director Chinonye Chukwu critiqued Hollywood on Instagram for its “unabashed misogyny towards Black women” after the academy snubbed her film. Likewise, in an essay for The Hollywood Reporter, Prince-Bythewood asked, “What is this inability of Academy voters to see Black women, and their humanity, and their heroism, as relatable to themselves?”
It’s been over 20 years since Halle Berry won the best actress Oscar for her “Monster’s Ball” performance as a Black mother who grieves the loss of her son through alcohol and sex. The fact that she remains the only Black woman to have won this award is ridiculous. “I do feel completely heartbroken that there’s no other woman standing next to me in 20 years,” Berry reflected in the run-up to the Oscars last year. “I thought, like everybody else, that night meant a lot of things would change.”
The difference between then and now is that there are far more Black women directors and complex Black women characters on the big screen than ever before. Maybe, next year, the academy members will get behind one of those actors. Then again, maybe I should know better.