Here's Why Chadwick Boseman's Oscar Loss Was So Shocking ... And Frustrating

by Sa'iyda Shabazz
Gareth Cattermole/Getty

Sunday night’s Oscar ceremony was a true testament to the unpredictability of award shows. While there were some truly great moments of the show and some historic wins, the death of actor Chadwick Boseman weighed heavy the entire night. Boseman, who was nominated for Best Actor for the movie “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” died in August 2020 of colon cancer. The film would tragically be his last, as he died before it was released.

From the beginning, Boseman was poised to win the Best Actor statue. It seemed to be the one thing nearly everyone agreed on. But then in a surprising twist, actor Anthony Hopkins won. And after such a buildup, Boseman’s loss felt even bigger than it normally would. Because his legacy, and what seemed to be his guaranteed win, was exploited throughout the entire show. And that’s what made Hopkins’ win so upsetting.

Let me say this explicitly: it’s not that I believe Anthony Hopkins is undeserving of his Oscar. He is an amazingly talented actor and has been doing this for a long time. Naturally, he has the acting chops to warrant winning such a prestigious award. But he’s in his 80s and has had an incredible career scope, including a previous Oscar win. Chadwick Boseman will never get to have the type of career Hopkins has, because he’s dead. He was just beginning to hit the stride in his career that would enable him to have had the same level of prestige Anthony Hopkins has. But now he never will, because he’s no longer here.

People, myself included, aren’t angry simply because Chadwick Boseman didn’t win the Oscar and Anthony Hopkins did. For an industry that tries to posture itself on doing better when it comes to diversity and honoring people of color, Hopkins’ win felt like a return to the status quo. On a night when the first women of color won for Makeup and Hairstyling, Costumes, and Best Director — plus a Black man winning for Best Supporting Actor, and a Korean woman winning Best Supporting Actress — having both the Best Actress and Best Actor awards go to white people feels like a slap in the face. Especially in the Best Actor category, where there were two other men of color nominated. Their performances were just as incredible, and they were playing roles that we haven’t seen before, much like Boseman. If he was going to lose, why couldn’t he have lost to another person of color?

Levee, Chadwick Boseman’s character in “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is a Black man who knows intimately the cruel hand of white supremacy. Growing up in the Jim Crow south during Reconstruction era, he witnessed first hand how white men used their power to keep Black people down. Without giving too much away, his character’s family is terrorized by white men because they wanted to have a better life. Then he himself is led on by a white man who makes him think that he has a future, when the plan really is to exploit him for his talent. In the film, Levee believes that he will be able to break away from Ma Rainey’s band and start his own band. And with his own band, he will be able to showcase his true artistry.

Of course in the end, the white music producer takes his music, says “thanks, but no thanks,” and simply offers Levee money instead of making good on his word. If you know anything about Black music in the early part of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for white artists to re-record Black music. This was because there wasn’t a market for “race music” outside of Black communities. But our music was good enough that white artists wanted to steal it and make a profit off of it. After his childhood of white men destroying his family’s dreams, this moment was the final straw. In those moments, Chadwick Boseman really shows you why he was nominated for every acting award. It is heartbreaking and powerful, and you can’t take your eyes off the screen. He is so captivating.

“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” is ultimately about the exploitation of Black artistry at the hands of a white industry. We see that through Viola Davis’s transcendent (and award-worthy) performance. But it is embodied and personified through Chadwick Boseman and his character Levee. His character is driven by how he’s been beaten and broken down and commodified by the white entertainment industry. That’s why it was so painful — not to mention ironic — that he lost.

In a way, that exploitation of his character’s talent is what was mirrored in what happened at this year’s Oscars.

All award season, Chadwick Boseman won accolades for his performance, with the exception of the BAFTAS. Because the voting pool for all these award shows is small, who wins the other awards is usually a good indicator of how the Oscars are going to go. That’s why the Oscar producers likely rearranged the show to make it so Best Actor was last. Because if he’d won, it would be an extremely emotional moment, just like it has been all award season. It was smart for the Academy to be aware of the gravity of the moment, and allow for it to be able to breathe in a way it wouldn’t if there was still more awards to present afterward. Yes, that’s why commercial breaks exist, but they were going for a moment. To their thinking, if Chadwick won, the show would end on a sad but beautiful tribute. Instead, with Anthony Hopkins’ win — which he wasn’t even present to accept — it ended with a surprise upheaval that to Chadwick’s fans felt like a big letdown.

The restructuring of the award presentation was only one of the many things they did to capitalize on Chadwick Boseman’s death; the “In Memoriam” section was another. A celebration of those in the industry who have died since the last broadcast, certain beloved members of the community will usually get an extra second or two of recognition, either through a clip or something similar, but this year that wasn’t the case. They simply rushed through all the other people to create an extra few seconds to sit with Boseman’s face on the screen. It felt disrespectful that the other people who died got quickly passed over just for Chadwick Boseman. Yes, he was a nominee; still, it felt weird.

But the exploitation of Chadwick Boseman’s legacy by the Oscars even goes beyond the television broadcast. In the gift bags the nominees received, there was a piece of Chadwick Boseman swag. Nominees received a NFT, or non-fungible token, which authenticates a digital 3D tribute to the actor. I will admit, even after all this talk of NFTs, I still have no freaking clue exactly what they are. According to reports, the NFT will be auctioned off, with proceeds given to The Colon Cancer Foundation. It’s fitting since Boseman died of colon cancer, but it just feels strange. Complex reports that the gift bags aren’t given by the Academy, which is good. But still, giving each Oscar nominee a 3D likeness of their dead friend and colleague is a weird flex.

Of course, winning or losing an Oscar isn’t indication of an actor’s career. But so often, people who deserve the praise don’t win. For most of those people, there will be another chance. Chadwick Boseman doesn’t get another chance. Pair that with the Academy’s exploitation of his legacy, and that is why people, especially the Black community, are upset. Chadwick Boseman was a damn good actor, and and even better human being. His legacy deserves more than what it got in the end.