By Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., NNPA Newswire Culture and Entertainment Editor
Über producer Will Packer was tapped to produce the 94th Academy Awards ceremony and he did not disappoint with grand performances, powerful acceptance speeches and an unscripted slap seen around the world. Hosted by comedians Wanda Sykes, Amy Schumer and renowned actress Regina Hall, the Oscars were infused with African American influence and culture from the presenters to the music of Earth, Wind and Fire, Lupe Fiasco and many more during the transitions and commercial breaks. The show’s musical director was Adam Blackstone and included a super group composed of Blackstone on bass guitar, Robert Glasper on piano, Travis Barker and Sheila E. on drums. The Oscar’s orchestra was led by Baltimore’s Dontae Winslow.
Presenters included Venus and Serena Williams, Halle Bailey, Ruth E. Carter, Rosie Perez, Wesley Snipes, Jason Mamoa, Lupita Nyong’o, Tracee Ellis Ross and Tyler Perry. The ceremony opened with the radiant Williams sisters, who executive produced King Richard, announcing Beyoncé, who performed “Be Alive,” from the King Richard soundtrack, on the tennis courts in Compton, CA where the world champions trained as girls. Reminiscent of the style and look of Tobe Nwigwe’s, “Make It Home” music video, Beyonce sang her heart out surrounded by an all-white clad group of Black performers against a mint green landscape.
The show which has grown from 15 minutes in its first year (1929) to an average of 3 and ½ hours in recent years had some controversy when Packer, executive producer of Girls Trip, Think Like a Man and Ride Along, cut some categories from the broadcast in order to shorten the time, which has been blamed for low ratings in previous years. The Florida A&M University (FAMU) graduate stuck to his guns addressing the controversy head on in the opening act and moved through the program effortlessly.
Ariana DeBose kicked off the ceremony with a Best Supporting Actress win for her performance as Anita in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story. DeBose thanked Rita Moreno, who originated the role of Anita in 1962’s West Side Story, becoming the first Puerto Rican actress to win a Best Supporting Actress award. DeBose thanked Rita Moreno for opening the doors for other “Anitas like her and referred to herself as an openly Queer Afro-Latina, of which she is the first to win an Academy Award. She encouraged young people struggling with their identities to persevere and know that “there is a place for them here.”
Celebrated actor John Leguizamo introduced the song, “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” from Disney’s Encanto soundtrack. Even though the song has become the highest charted Disney song in the last 28 years, Lin-Manuel Miranda opted to submit “Dos Oruguitas,” for Oscar consideration instead. Miranda, who was scheduled to appear, had to pull out of the broadcast after his wife tested positive for Covid-19. “We Don’t Talk About Bruno,” was performed by the Encanto cast Stephanie Beatriz (Brooklyn Nine-Nine), Diane Guerrero (Doom Patrol), reggaeton singer Adassa, Colombian musicians Carolina Gaitán and Mauro Castillo and Grammy award-winning rapper Megan the Stallion. John Leguizano, who actually voices the character of Bruno Madrigal in the film, did not perform, which he joked about during the introduction.
Amir “Questlove” Thompson won for Best Documentary feature for his film Summer of Soul. Thompson, who was accompanied by his mother, was overwhelmed by the win offering that the film covers the Summer of 1969 in Harlem but is relevant to what is happening today.
Comedian Chris Rock introduced the documentary category and made jokes about Denzel Washington’s performance in The Tragedy of MacBeth, at which the two-time Oscar winner laughed and congratulated Jada Pinkett Smith for her role in G.I. Jane 2. Will Smith, who later won the Best Actor award for his performance as Richard Williams in King Richard, approached Rock and slapped him in the face and returned to his seat. American television muted the sound after Smith shouted to Rock to “keep his wife’s name out of your mouth.” Lupita Nyong’o sat stunned at what many thought was a comedic bit but soon realized was a real slap.
Sean “Diddy” Combs tried to calm the situation down following the smack. Upon winning the Best Actor award, Smith wept as he spoke of protecting his family of actors and producers as well as his wife. He spoke about being bullied and forced to take poor treatment due to his celebrity. He apologized to the Academy and his fellow nominees but not to Rock. With his win, Smith becomes the fifth Black man to win the Best Actor Oscar in the history of the Academy Awards.
Additional awards were given out earlier. Late last week (March 25), the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences awarded legendary actor Samuel L. Jackson, 73, an honorary Oscar for lifetime achievement in film and humanitarian efforts. Jackson, a prolific actor who has 197 acting credits, has delivered powerful performances in a host of films including Jungle Fever, Django, A Time to Kill, Eve’s Bayou, The Red Violin and the Star Wars and Marvel Universe franchises. One of Jackson’s most memorable performances was as Jules Winfield in Quentin Tarantino’s classic film Pulp Fiction, for which he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor at the 1995 Academy Awards. In his acceptance speech for the honorary Oscar, Jackson said, “I’m really, really proud to receive this statuette,” and “this thing is going to be cherished.” The Morehouse graduate also thanked “every person who has ever bought a ticket to any movie I was in.”
At the same event, Iconic actor Danny Glover, 74, received the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his human rights activism that has spanned the globe during the course of his career. Glover who is best known for his starring roles in The Color Purple, the Lethal Weapon franchise and critically acclaimed performances in To Sleep With#OSCARSBLACK Anger, Places in the Heart, Freedom Song and The Last Black Man in San Francisco has been engaged in civic activism and used his platform to shed light on many causes including ending Apartheid in South Africa. Glover’s activism began in the Haight Asbury neighborhood of his hometown San Francisco, where he was a part of the Black Panther’s Breakfast program and a student activist at San Francisco State University.
In 1988, Glover was appointed Goodwill ambassador to the UN Development Program and an ambassador for the UNICEF division in 2004, respectively. In those capacities, Glover worked with countries in Haiti, Mali, Namibia, Senegal, Jamaica and Columbia on causes including social justice, climate change and HIV/AIDS awareness. In 2005, he combined his love for acting and filmmaking with activism and co-founded Louverture Films in New York City. The production company is dedicated to producing independent films of historical relevance, social purpose, commercial value and artistic integrity. Since its inception, the company has produced nearly 30 films on topics such as Hurricane Katrina, post-conflict resolution in Nepal, and a film about Afghanistan.