I’ve never heard or used the word “processing” more than I have in the days since these last Oscars. Having been in the room where it happened, I’ve been beset by questions from journalists, friends, family members and people I haven’t heard from in a long time. My answer has remained the same as I’ve also heard from others. “I’m still processing what just happened.”
My experiences of attending the Oscars over the past few years have been steeped in unexpected drama and a constant intersection of public opinion, politics and race. In 2015, I had a front-row seat at the beginning of #OscarsSoWhite, having starred in the film that had a hand in starting it all, Selma. Two years later, I became part of a viral meme after my reaction was caught on camera as La La Land was wrongly cited as the winner of best picture instead of the actual winner, Moonlight.
So, you could argue, that when I received my invite to this year’s Oscars, I should have expected nothing less than to witness yet another dramatic incident in which public opinion, politics and race collide, but like most of us, nothing could have prepared me for what was to come. As a Black man in the public eye, you are constantly aware of the fact that your very existence is political. You are consistently in a state of either being used as an example to perpetuate or debunk a stereotype. Those stereotypes are tied to crime, civility, education, sexual progress, poverty, social responsibility and so much more. It’s a burden I have to accept despite it being exhausting in nature.
The moment I slowly realized the nature of what had just occurred on the stage at the Dolby Theatre, I was confronted by the same rising anxiety all Black people feel when the face that flashes up on the news after a crime is reported, is a Black one. You find yourself thinking, “What does this mean for us?” “What does that mean for me?” Very soon after the now-infamous Oscar ceremony, I walked into an Oscar afterparty and was immediately confronted by that which I feared. An older white gentleman sidled up to me with relish in his demeanor and said, “He should have been dragged right out of there.” You may well agree with that sentiment, but it’s not what he said, it’s the way he said it. I know that relish. I know that demeanor, and it is ugly to its core in all of its coded messaging.
Since #OscarsSoWhite, great gains have been made by the Academy and the entertainment industry. The then-Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, despite immense internal opposition and pressure, led the charge in forcing the Academy to improve its disgracefully uneven racial and gender demographics. That change clearly led to films and artisans, who would traditionally be ignored, being celebrated over the intervening years. That example had the very welcome effect of permeating our industry. It would be naive to assume that the incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock will not be pushed, by some industry professionals, through the lens of race. Some of them will be the same folks who resisted the inclusion measures Cheryl Boone Isaacs and her supporters at the Academy managed to push through and which led to a more diverse Academy.
This intersection of personal opinion, politics and race is the same reason Black artists have for decades had to deal with Hollywood’s “big lie” that Black films and artists don’t travel. Will Smith himself had a big hand in debunking that lie. It’s also the reason we have traditionally been celebrated more for playing subservient and criminalized roles than empowered and inspiring ones. It’s the reason we still have barely any Black executives who have the autonomy to greenlight anything that gets made.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, the entertainment industry made a lot of pledges to increase the diversity of our business. Some intentional. Some ceremonial. My fear is that this unfortunate incident, which has us all processing, will have a negative effect on the ongoing push for inclusion. There are those who, in a bid to make sure something of this nature never happens again, will operate through an unconscious — or conscious — bias. A bias that still governs so much of the decision-making in Hollywood. It would be tragic if a bid to prevent such an incident from happening again becomes an excuse for ideas about inclusion and diversity to backslide. That would only confirm the disingenuous nature of some of these pledges in the first place. This incident should not be a springboard for proxy arguments in Hollywood circles about race, respectability and belonging.
The unfair nature of what happened to Chris Rock and those whose achievements were completely overshadowed that night cannot be overstated. Will himself has rightly said his actions were “shocking, painful and inexcusable.” But in all of our processing of what happened, let’s not forget that there is a disposition exemplified by the man who approached me at that afterparty. His gossipy lean and the half smile on his face are indicative of what must not be allowed to creep into the aftermath of this incident. We must be vigilant against decision-making that would detrimentally affect the gains made by the likes of the Academy, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, and all of those fighting for a more diverse, inclusive and equitable entertainment industry and world.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Hollywood, it’s that it harbors some very good people with good intentions and a number of broken people with bad intentions. I’m calling on the good people with good intentions to stay focused on building on the great gains we’ve recently made. They mustn’t be eroded by those with bad intentions who would seek with relish to weaponize this incident to derail those gains and divide us.
David Oyelowo, the author of this guest column, is an actor, director and producer who has been nominated for Emmy, BAFTA, Critics Choice, Golden Globe and SAG awards.