When Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on the Oscars stage, many industry insiders attending the ceremony missed the action. They were at the bar.
Everyone from Adam McKay to Apple and Focus executives were wandering the spiral floors of the Dolby Theatre, taking a break from the overlong show to schmooze, when Rock stepped out to introduce the documentary category; in the commercial break that followed, I found myself accosted by attendees begging for a recap when they missed the big moment.
The big moment, of course, should have been Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson accepting his prize for “Summer of Soul.” It was an opportunity for the musician-turned-director to make a galvanizing statement on the power of preserving Black culture through art — but it became roadkill in a show enmeshed in an identity crisis from the inside out. As the Oscars chase ratings into oblivion, they also struggle with a solid reason to keep anyone watching, including the industry that the show is designed to salute.
This year could have embraced the powerful milestones and personal stories. Instead, Oscar watchers inside and outside the Dolby left the ceremony rattled; everyone who didn’t watch the show saw the three-and-a-half hour event distilled into a 46-second clip of a future Oscar winner walking on stage to smack a presenter.
Sean Penn made headlines by threatening to “smelt” his own Oscar if that Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky didn’t make an appearance at the show. He didn’t, so we’ll see. Insiders at the ceremony said Penn engaged in active discussions with the Academy to help it connect with Zelensky, since the actor recently escaped Ukraine after shadowing its leader for months on an upcoming docuseries.
At one point, the pressure was strong enough that the show’s producers entertained the idea of including a pre-taped Zelensky moment and even discussed having Robert De Niro introduce the clip. Instead, viewers got Ukrainian-born Mila Kunis at the microphone for a brief statement — oddly, without any clear acknowledgment of her heritage — followed by 30 seconds of silence in the theater. Once again, the Dolby bar told the story: Loud conversations and clinking glasses pierced the moment of silence.
Penn wasn’t there to shush anyone; a rumor circulated that he was mulling a return to Ukraine to continue his project. When a tribute to the James Bond franchise came up, the director of its latest installment, “No Time to Die,” wasn’t around, either; Cary Joji Fukunaga is volunteering in Kyiv.
The Ukranian war was not the only crisis represented at the event. Gulistan Mirzaei, the first Afghan filmmaker nominated for an Oscar, attended with his wife and co-director Elizabeth for their documentary short nominee “Three Songs for Benazir.” An absorbing and bittersweet look at a young man living life to the best of his ability in a camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of Kabul, it lost to “The Queen of Basketball” when the award was handed out in the pre-taped hour before the show.
“There are many stories like this in Afghanistan,” Mirazai said in an interview on Sunday, “so to know that this situation has gotten worse for him is just so tough.”
The short, which Netflix acquired out of the festival circuit, provides an essential reminder of the humanitarian issues ongoing in Afghanistan even as the news cycle has moved on to another international conflict. “I’m still proud that I got this achievement out to the world,” said Mirazai, who looked more than a little disoriented as the awards-show mayhem spilled into the chaos of the Governors Ball at the top of the theater. “I hope that people see this story to understand there are many more like it in Afghanistan.”
The documentary’s subject, an enterprising young man named Shaista, continues to live under harrowing circumstances in the country in the wake of the Taliban takeover last year. Producer Houmayon Noori, who also attended the show, escaped the country after U.S. troops pulled out last summer in a harrowing multi-day undertaking that included late-night drives and multiple safehouses. His parents and four sisters were still there. Nobody felt the disconnect between the Oscars’ boisterous celebration and the circumstances beyond its view more than him.
“Even though I’m here, my thoughts are not,” Noori said through a translator. “I want to send out a message to the world not to forget the people in Afghanistan. There’s still a lot of pain there.”
A few days earlier at the annual Women In Film party, Elizabeth Mirazei hinted at this disconnect when she joined her fellow nominees on the stage. She used her brief moment at the mic to single out the disconnect. “It’s kind of faded from the headlines now, but it’s really important not to forget what’s happening in Afghanistan,” she said, barely audible under the roar of the crowd.
Asked to elaborate a few minutes later, she sighed. “Afghanistan wasn’t even mentioned in the State of the Union a single time,” she said. “People are at risk of starvation. It’s a very, very difficult situation.” She hesitated.
“We’ve been trying to avoid politics this whole time,” she said, referring to the many months of Oscar campaigning. “But this story has been replaced by everything else. That’s the thing about news. It just has this vicious appetite. You’re served up something, you’re frantic and panicked, and it disappears until you’re panicked about something else.”
So it went at the Oscars, where opportunities for major statements that might connect the Oscars to troubled times fell by the wayside. The Afghan refugee crisis also comes up with “Flee,” the animated Danish documentary from director Jonas Poher Rasmussen that made history as the first non-fiction effort nominated in three categories. “Flee,” which deals with an adult gay man from Afghanistan recalling his escape two decades earlier, embodies the potential of fusing creative ambition with socially conscious storytelling. At the show, Rasmussen said he had a series of speeches lined up for various possible outcomes over the course of the night. None of them came up.
“Things don’t change overnight. But hopefully this film will live on and contribute to an understanding of the refugee experience,” he said as the show dragged on. “It’s pretty surreal to be doing all this. We’re really trying to remind people this is happening across the world. All of these are human stories. I hope they are perceived that way in the future — whether they’re from Ukraine, or Afghanistan, or anywhere else.” He pointed out that the latter country currently faces a rough winter. “So it’s a really poor situation and I really wish people would help,” he said.
Can the Oscars inspire change? One producer at the Governors Ball feared that pushing such activist intentions into the spotlight might amount to “virtue signaling.” Perhaps, but in 2022 we may need reality checks beyond the movie magic that keeps reality at bay. The stories of genuine struggle and representational milestones were more present behind the scenes at the Oscars than they were in front of the cameras.
Consider “Summer of Soul.” Many pitied Questlove for having his achievement overshadowed by the jolting moment that preceded his arrival on stage, but the win was also a major achievement for his producer, Joseph Patel, who did not get his chance at mic. Patel was the second person of South Asian descent to win that night, after Riz Ahmed for producing the short film “The Long Goodbye.”
At the bar, Patel recalled attending a South Asian honoree dinner earlier in the week. “When I was growing up, I didn’t have anyone like me to point to tell me my parents that this was what I wanted to do,” he said. “Now, there’s this room I’m in, and I hope I’m that person for someone else. I feel like all of us are. We have that responsibility now — not just to be present, but to make really good movies.”
Where was that sentiment in the show? This Oscar season proved, once again, that the industry fears taking sides or making grandiose statements without the crutch of uplifting storytelling that lets the audience feel good about itself.
At a brunch over the weekend at the home of Disney executive Dana Walden for the studio’s Black-focused division the Onyx Collective, Disney CEO Bob Chapek was in attendance but did not participate in remarks. Chapek’s low-key presence, a week after backlash against the company for its reticence to push back on Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill, seemed like an extension of the general discomfort with storytelling designed to address cultural oversights rather than sticking to the familiar.
Questlove himself showed little interest in coasting on Oscar glory. At the brunch, he shrugged off the decision he’d made to perform at the El Rey theater with The Roots a mere 12 hours before the Oscars. “It’s not really a show, it’s jam session!” he said — and it sure was. The gig found everyone from documentary governor Roger Ross Williams to Cinetic head John Sloss boogieing to a lively set that included appearances from the likes of George Clinton and El DeBarge. It projected exactly the kind of joyous communal celebration that the Oscars ceremony lacked.
Across town that night at Katana on Sunset, Janus Films, and Sideshow hosted a dinner for the entourage from “Drive My Car,” with a crowd that included the many figures who participated in the life of the movie, from Match Factory sales agent Michael Weber to HBO Max executive Axel Caballero, who acquired the streaming rights to the movie after its nominations.
Janus and Criterion CEO Peter Becker noted the significance of a Japanese movie scoring its first Best Picture nomination. “This film is historically meaningful,” he said. “Janus has had the honor of releasing the films of Ozu, Kurosawa, Mizoguchi — and none of those masters were honored in quite this way, with quite this passion.” At the show the next night, Hamaguchi won Best International Feature Film and producers accidentally cut off his speech early.
With “CODA,” the Academy had a Best Picture winner that provided a genial piece of filmmaking held in high regard by people who would rather sidestep the bleaker visions of a complicated world. The enthusiasm for “CODA” circulated throughout the room for each of its three wins, with the audience signing ASL applause each time.
Even naysayers had to admit that “CODA” marked an exciting triumph for the deaf community, but the moment’s impact faded in the face of a single violent act. It also took the heat off Netflix’s loss of a Best Picture trophy for “The Power of the Dog” — a movie about toxic masculinity, of all things — to Apple. Netflix CEO Ted Sarandos seemed eager to celebrate with Best Director winner Jane Campion. He insisted the company wasn’t about to abandon its ambitions with awards season titles. “This doesn’t change anything about what we do,” he said. “We just want to release good films.”
Nearby, the “Three Songs for Benazir” filmmakers took in the sight and contemplated their next moves. “I feel like I have a responsibility because of the support of this film to tell more stories like this,” Gulistan Mirzaei said, noting that the film’s subject was still in Afghanistan and eager to get out. “I’m looking forward to it, but it’s going to be a harder task. Right now with Ukraine, it’s like the whole world forgot about Afghanistan.”
As parties continued late into the night, nobody talked about the snubs; everyone was talking about Will Smith.
Standing outside one lively gathering waiting to accompany an A-lister to the Vanity Fair bash, a publicist basked in the awkward news cycle at hand. “Ooh, I love it when it doesn’t involve my clients,” they said, scrolling through headlines on their phone. At another after-party, the DJ blasted music to volumes that turned talking into a physical endurance test. But one wide-eyed filmmaker and Academy member in attendance, a few drinks into the night, beamed about the Smith moment. “Say what you want about what he did,” they shouted. “It was great to see something real.”