Angela Bassett’s controversial Oscar moment was an example of dignity amid discomfort

Angela Bassett in "Waiting to Exhale"
Angela Bassett in “Waiting to Exhale”

It wasn’t exactly a Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks moment but many of us understood what we all perceived Angela Bassett was feeling when she was snubbed (again) at the 2023 Academy Awards.

I admit, the sight of Jamie Lee Curtis accepting her award for “Best Supporting Actress” and being met with applause, and cheers was nauseating to witness, but I didn’t put it past the Oscars to do what it has done so well for 3/4 of a century.

This isn’t about Curtis though.

If you are a Black man or woman who has been blessed to have a career you love, you probably know that inescapable feeling of pressure to conform when you’re around your colleagues. That pressure to avoid the Angry Black Man/Woman label if you are upset, no matter how warranted. You probably have even felt at a time or two your tolerance was tested as well, turning your job into a monumental experiment on your patience. We all know work, like life, isn’t perfect, however it’s easier to accept the idea that life throws curveballs than your employer or colleagues ignoring your homeruns. With that said, it’s not unusual to eventually feel like you have reached a breaking point — and I do emphasize breaking. “Uncomfortable” moments are bound to happen. (More on that later.)

I’ll admit, prior to the 2023 Oscar nominations announcement, I was skeptical Bassett’s name would be called. Not because her acting wasn’t representative of Angela Bassett in her best form, but because the field would be a tough one for a performance in a blockbuster film like “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” to be seriously considered. After all, a lot of the material isn’t exactly aimed at the Sundance types. Granted, I wasn’t exposed to all of the films released in 2022, I just assumed there were more “Oscar-worthy” contenders on tap — the usual White-faux-progressive-centric types that get nominated, but there weren’t. When I saw who was invited to the party this year — the other nominees and the caliber of films — I, like many people familiar with Bassett’s work, believed she would finally receive her flowers.

Those hopes were dashed and torched by Sunday night.

While I didn’t (and wouldn’t) tune into the 2023 Academy Awards, the buzz made its way to my phone that night thanks to Google News, of course, and the social media roast was underway. The Oscars wanted a fire, so Black Twitter made it a barbecue.

I watched the clip. Bassett, who is aging like fine wine I might add, was in her seat composed. (She has quite a poker face. I re-watched the clip hoping to glean some inkling of excitement, fear, trepidation… anything.) When Curtis’s name was called, I sighed and shook my head. I couldn’t not react.

At that moment, Bassett, on the other hand probably felt like she already does enough acting, so there was no need to put in overtime at the Oscars. As we all saw, when the crowd jumped to their feet, Bassett didn’t budge.

My initial thought upon witnessing this latest snub to Bassett was “Finally, someone showed we, as Black people, can’t keep tolerating this disrespect.”

Personally, I’m careful to use words like “owed” and “deserve” — it’s a very dangerous road to walk down that can stir feelings of bitterness and discontentment. I also don’t think it’s my place to make such an assessment without significant backup. But when you are a woman with a resume incomparable to perhaps 99% of your colleagues, and you have peers who support you, as Michael B. Jordan and Jonathan Majors displayed for “auntie” during the ceremony, you know you were robbed.

I referred to what Bassett was possibly feeling in the moment as uncomfortable because it’s an outcome she probably didn’t prefer. I find it hard to believe she was indifferent about potentially receiving the award, especially after her “What’s Love” nomination 30 years ago, which everyone I know believed she was a shoo-in to win at the time. Last Sunday, instead of choosing dismay, she chose dignity, and respectfully remained true to her feelings.

Her silence was gold.

While I commend Bassett for her decision, I have to pivot the spotlight to an under-discussed issue, in my humble opinion: White Congratulations. Watching Sunday’s snub unfold was another reminder this is a bonified thing that shouldn’t be elevated.

I understand the power and importance of the visibility of Black achievements, especially in a place that represents the entire film industry such as the Oscars. There is no other entertainment awards show like it. But, and that is a hard “but,” if this purported symbol of Hollywood’s best has a history of excluding Black performances and overlooking Black actors, why does anyone Black continue to care? Every time it seems the academy gets one thing right about inclusion/recognition, it seems they get at least two more things wrong. Does anyone truly believe there is some redemption ahead that will make Black viewers feel that the performers they respect are, in fact, shown the respect they have earned?

It may not always be feasible to find a Black support system depending on your field of work, but Bassett proved no matter where your supporters are, (if you have them or not) you don’t have to move an inch to show what sitting in your power looks like when things don’t go the way they should.

I think it wouldn’t hurt to also view this situation as a reminder that we can all work a little harder to make the adulation of our Black colleagues and peers feel like the only award that matters. The community has a legacy of lifting each other up in solidarity, and that’s as golden as any Oscar…  from where I sit.