Well now, good thing I did decide to watch because the Oscars was deep this year (tho still boring). Top WTF goes to Elinor Burkett who interrupted African American Director Roger Ross Williams’ acceptance speech for Best Short: Music by Prudence in order to call him a sexist pig. (1)
According to industry insiders, while Burkett and Williams were both nominated as co-producers, Williams was meant to speak on his own as Director, Producer, and sole owner of the film. Burkett clearly forgot the agreement, and her own early exit from the project before the film was finished, in a sweeping display of entitlement; she not only walked on the stage but breached established Oscar protocol to interrupt Williams’ speech rather than waiting until he was finished. Though she cast her refusal to wait as a feminist issue, acceptance speech negotiations occur prior to the night, or sometimes quietly on stage, and even if Burkett had changed her mind or not been involved in those negotiations as she claimed, the two spoke on the red carpet that night seemingly without Burkett saying anything about wanting to be on stage. It is also common when someone wants to speak first but has to wait, to make note of it briefly before beginning their own acceptance, a tactic Burkett felt entitled to ignore.
More than that, Burkett intentionally interrupted Williams’ story about Africa by actually putting her head on his chest while he was speaking and saying “Isn’t that just like the man, never let’s the woman talk.”
Though he stared at her incredulous, Williams’ chose the high ground, pulling her into him and saying how exciting the night was with the intention of smoothing over the conflict and allowing them both to share the spotlight. This is where Burkett’s feminism argument falls completely apart, she’d made her objection known and Williams’ was attempting to rectify the situation, she could have shared the spotlight and centered the film’s powerful story about an African woman, their band, and disability transforming the moment into something truly feminist. Instead, Burkett continued to center herself to the detriment of the feminism in the film and the honor of their joint win.
Moving into the microphone this time, she said it again, “Let the woman talk, isn’t that just the classic thing …” This time her voice was loud enough that everyone heard her and the comment went down in the official transcript of the speech. Cluelessly, offensively, Burkett launched into her own acceptance speech as Williams sucked his breath and remained silently shocked with the rest of the audience.
Many in attendance began to gossip and actively shrink away from the stage or sink into their seats as Burkett spoke. Equally horrified was Prudence, the star of the documentary, for which the directing duo won. She sank into her chair looking both confused and horrified as Burkett steam rolled everyone with her “my” this and “my” that acceptance speech that seemed to ignore not only the black man beside her who had also won, but also everyone else involved in the making of the movie until the very last minute.
In a world in which most of us are told and tell ourselves that we can’t. Liyana, the band behind this film, teaches us that we’re wrong. Against all odds they did, so we can. So the bottom line is, to me, my role models and my heroes, Marvelous and Energy, Tapiwa, Goodwell, the whole rest of the band and especially Prudence.
Her attempt at sending an uplifting message to the audience rang as hollow as her accusations. By the time she was done, Williams’ attempt to highlight the other important woman involved in the film by pointing out that Prudence was there that night, something Burkett did not do, no one was listening. The producers hastily started the music in the hopes of putting an end to the debacle. The result is that those unfamiliar with the film learned nothing about it or the women involved in it but only that at least one of the Producers involved was only interested in “me, my role models and my heroes” and perhaps even “my Africa” as opposed to an actual place. This was a sad end to what looks to be a compelling movie about dis/ability and strength in Africa centered on a woman’s story. (UPDATE: It seems this wasn’t the end. This morning Burkett further diminished her feminist claims by demeaning Williams 82 year old differently-abled mother. She claims Williams’ mother intentionally blocked her path with her cane, while witnesses at the table and William himself say, his mom simply stood up to embrace her son and then sat back down. So in total, two or more black women have now had their stories eclipsed – Burkett apparently departed from the film after Williams decided to highlight Prudence’s story as an entry point into the bands’ music – or their character demeaned, and a black male director and his family have been openly verbally assaulted, in the name of “feminism.” I don’t know about you but I always thought feminism by definition was about lifting up women’s voices and stories and honoring our elders. END UPDATE)
Sadly, Williams never did get to finish his story about Africa but at least he did get to speak off stage, of course while Burkett preened in the background:
In far more positive news, major milestones were reached tonight by both African Americans and women (and of course black women). Out gay writer Geoffrey Fletcher became the first African American to win an Academy Award for Best Screenwriter in its 82 year history. This win is not only historical but also an important nod to Fletcher for cultivating a story about a young black girl and fighting to bring it to the screen. Fletcher obtained the rights to write about Precious several years before it got the go ahead and spent those years fighting to get a studio, director, and financing to make it happen. Like other celebrities ultimately involved in the project, he was committed to making room for black women to tell their stories of abuse and survival to the world and his win and the grace with which he accepted it applauds that commitment.
Mo’Nique won for Best Supporting Actress and took time out to thank Hattie McDaniels who won for refusing to birth any babies on that darn crumbling plantation. Both the flower in Mo’Nique’s hair and the color of her dress were also homages to the woman who fought so hard to rework the mammy figure in Gone with the Wind and to open doors for other black women in Hollywood. Like Oprah’s speech later, her acceptance speech highlighted women’s contributions at the intersections of race and gender in order to honor the women who made these awards possible and the girls who will benefit from that work.
Mo’Nique also reminded us for the second time during award season that racial politics aside, Precious was the story of abuse ignored because of and exacerbated by poverty and racism and that those stories deserve attention even if politically the may or may not send the wrong racial messages to an audience looking for black pathology. Like Daniels who claimed black people working in Hollywood would ultimately change the perception of black people in Hollywood and the opportunities for black people in N. American society, Mo’Nique believed this story could help change the way that black abuse survivors see themselves. By consistently centering abuse history and the voices of survivors, Mo’Nique resists easy interpretations of the film and centers black women survivors’ voices in an industry that prefers to blame black women for any and everything that happens to them.
Mo’Nique’s grace and historical couching of the win almost made up for the academy giving Sandra Bullock the Best Actress role, almost. Despite the fact I don’t think she should have won, Bullock did give a poignant thank you speech earnestly recognizing the talent of all of the other women nominated in the category. The time she took to both praise Sidibe’s performance and her person were particularly moving because they reminded the audience not to count out such a bright young black female new comer. Her willingness to share the spotlight with Sidibe also showed more grace than some of the misguided attempts in the past where actors have offered their awards to other people who they think deserve it more; instead, Bullock acknowledged the fact that she and others thought Sidibe deserved the win and then thanked the audience for recognizing what she felt was her own strongest role. That my friends is feminism, the recognition of the talent and strength of all women, the check of potential isms (be they race, weight, age, or as she would later include sexuality, based), and the pride in one’s own work as part of a larger picture.
Bullock also mentioned the importance of all kinds of families and equality in her speech which again almost elevated her pointed comment about motherhood out of tabloid status. (2) By recognizing that a mother is a person who cares for and raises you even if they have no biological connection to you, Bullock echoed Mo’Nique’s point about politics vs “what is right.” Without making a spectacle, she challenged the idea that the Tuohy-Oher story did not deserve to be told just because of the ways it lined up with racist and racialized thinking in N. America. Though I disagree with the execution of the film, which centered the Tuohy’s struggle and development over Oher’s back story and growth ultimately reinforcing a colonial gaze, I whole heartedly agree with Bullock that all families count and the woman behind her character was and is a remarkable woman whose story deserves to be told.
In even more history making moments, Kathryn Bigelow won for Best Director, making her the first woman to win in the 82 year history of the award show. While her speech was not very moving, except the reference to war, what was moving was Babs introduction. Never one to let sexism slide, Barbara Streisand reminded us that no woman had ever won before and the time had come for a feminist revolution at the Oscars long before she opened the envelope.
In many ways the people introducing these key moments in the Oscars represented critical shift in the social consciousness of the award show. For those with less Oscar memory, the pairings for these awards were extremely political: Oprah was not only one of the financiers behind Precious but she too was nominated for her first acting role, a role in which she also played an abused woman who overcame, and Streisand’s first directorial debut received top nominations at the Oscars but she was not nominated for Best Director. Many believe the failure to nominate her was because she was such a strong woman in a male dominated industry. From Oprah’s moving tribute to Sidibe to Tyler Perry’s take on directing to Babs feminist close, these were the moments we cannot forget as we talk about an award show that so seldom recognizes the talent of marginalized people in its highest awards.
1. Video of the interruption is copywritten and not available on youtube; the directors of the Oscars have also opted to show Williams full acceptance speech on the official page rather than the broadcast interruption.
2. Sandra Bullock and her husband Jesse are currently involved in a custody battle with her husband’s ex-wife. Jesse and his ex have both been accused of using drugs, engaging in abusive behavior, and other activities while parenting their daughter. While Bullock and her family have argued that Jesse’s past behavior has no bearing because he has changed, they have granted no similar reprieve to the child’s mother, who has completely rehab and made legal restitution for criminal activities related to drug use. For her part, the ex has argued that she is willing to continued a shared arrangement with Bullock but is concerned that Bullock’s own inability to have children is clouding her judgment. Regardless of who is telling the truth, the Oscars is hardly the place to take a dig at a struggling mother or reference a custody battle. For all her feminist highs at the Oscar, the motherhood comment that seemed so positive was embedded with quite the low.