Ashley Makombe questions the point of awards season
When I was younger, every time awards season came around I would stay up way past my bedtime to watch all the stars walk the red carpet. The dresses, the interviews, the lights and cameras pulled me in and afterwards I would pretend that I was one of them. I cheered when my favourite actor or singer won, cried when they lost and I would try to memorise the choreography of my favourite performances of the night to show all my friends in dance class the next day.
As I got older, I began to recognise a recurring pattern; none of the artists I loved were winning. At first, I thought “well surely everyone feels that way, we all want who we like to win”. However, some of the snubs were too obvious to ignore. Just last year, Beyonce become the most awarded artist in Grammy history, but she’s never won a single album of the year award at the award show. Or the fact that Halle Berry is the only Black woman to ever win best actress at Oscars. I remember so vividly the day that the Grammys awarded rap album of the year to Macklemore over fan favourites Good Kid m.A.Ad city By Kendrick Lamar, Yeezus by Kanye West and Magna Carter… Holy Grail By Jay Z. And to this day Spike Lee has never won the Oscar for director of the year despite creating cult classics Do The Right Thing, and Malcolm X, with Lee’s first best director nomination being for his 2018 film BlacKkKlansman.
And the snubs go beyond those who end up winning. The elitism in award shows becomes very obvious when it comes to which categories each piece of art is placed into. Doja Cat, much like many Black pop artists, is constantly placed in the best R&B categories despite not making R&B music. The 2020 film Minari wasn’t allowed to compete in the best film category at the Golden Globes and was instead placed in the best foreign-language film category as more than 50 per cent of the spoken dialogue in it was not in English. But the film is set in America and the plot is about people trying to fulfil the American dream. What is more American than that?
Over time my interest in watching award shows has dwindled significantly. There’s no fun in watching when you can predict who the winners will be (or who they definitely will not be) just based on the race and gender of the other people in that category. So when films like Moonlight end up winning for best picture at the Oscars (2017) or people Lauryn Hill win album of the year at the Grammys (1999) it shocks everyone.
Part of the appeal of Hollywood and awards season is its elitism. It is why when I was younger I would fantasise about wearing a ball gown and walking down the red carpet and winning an award of my own. It’s because a life like that was so far from my reality as a little Black girl who lived in Tallaght. However, that’s the thing about elitism, it’s only fun for those who are allowed to participate in it, and those who are allowed to have never looked like myself or my peers.
A large reason why Black people and people of colour are consistently left out of the conversation when it comes to award shows is due to the lack of diversity in the voting bodies which choose who does and doesn’t get nominated. Of the eighty-seven members of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (voting committee at the Golden Globes), there were no Black members until October 2021.
After campaigns such as #OscarsSoWhite and the fast declining viewership at award shows each year it is obvious that every day people don’t care for them in the same way that they used to. Drake and other creatives have also begun publicly calling out voting bodies for their lack of diversity and understanding when it came to non-white artists. In his speech, which was cut off by broadcasters, he said “Look, if there’s people who have regular jobs who are coming out in the rain, in the snow, spending their hard-earned money to buy tickets to come to your shows, you don’t need this right here. I promise you, you already won.”
His speech begs the question, what even is the point of award shows anymore? The whole point of award shows is to recognise those who create high-quality art but pieces created by non-white people almost never get recognised unless they fit into the box that is expected of them. It’s hard to say that we should abolish them completely because an Oscars or Grammy win has the power to change someone’s life completely, especially if you are a person of colour. But the standard you must reach to even get into awards season conversations is ten times higher than that of your white peers. Sure we have award shows like the BET Awards and the NAACP Awards, and they are incredibly important for recognising those that other award shows often skip over, but if winning a community recognised awards provided the same amount of benefits as your traditional award shows, shows like the Grammys and Oscars and Golden Globes would be obsolete.
Everyone wants to be recognised for their hard work, it’s why awards shows across fields from music to sports to YouTube to even teacher of the year awards exist in the first place. It is extremely fulfilling to have someone see all the blood sweat and tears you put into a project and to be acknowledged for it. But when the people who are being awarded never look like you or the people around you, you begin to ask what the point of them is anyway.
Maybe the solution is for us as audience members to stop caring about them and to start supporting the projects that we like outside of cheering them on in awards season. When Black Panther came out in February 2018, my social media feed was full of people putting on their traditional African clothes and renting out cinemas to support the first Black Marvel superhero film. Watching the outpour of support from across the diaspora for this film was honestly so beautiful to see. Everyone just wanted to see it succeed and to show producers that an all-Black lead superhero film is profitable and that we want more. And it worked, with Black Panther becoming the highest grossing superhero film ever in the US at the time.
Oscars and Grammys are great, but it’s not the Hollywood Foreign Press Association or music and movie critics who hold the power when it comes to artist recognition, we as an audience do. We decide the success of a project, the longevity of an artist and the cultural impact a piece of art makes on the world. When you think of your own favourite films or albums, how many of them are award winners. Critical acclaim doesn’t come from a tiny room full of elitist critics and voting bodies, it comes from the community, it comes from you and from me, and maybe we as an audience need to move the conversation on the quality of art away from how many awards this person does and doesn’t have, and towards its impact on the community, and, how it made you feel.