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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

How the Oscars and Grammys thrive on the lie of meritocracy

Danielle Deadwyler in “Till.” She had to show public restraint as a grieving mother, while other actresses were lauded for emotional excess.

By Salamisha Tillet

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 Sunday night when the Grammys awarded Harry Styles’ “Harry’s House” album of the year, not Beyoncé’s “Renaissance.” Although 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. Although 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 havenW’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.”

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 grassroots 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.

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.

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