The Real Message of Janelle Monáe’s Oscars Performance

The singer’s opener showed that for women and people of color, tongue-in-cheek references and talk of progress mean nothing without trophies.

The show was trying to honor Hollywood’s changing landscape, but doing so in bizarrely produced, frivolous bits came off as unconvincing rather than sincere. (Chris Pizzello / AP)

The Oscars knew it had some explaining to do. Going into Sunday night’s ceremony, the Academy had not only failed to nominate a single female director despite a spike in women-directed films, but also nominated just one actor of color across all performing categories—stats that once again landed the organization in hot water.

The show acknowledged the criticisms immediately. To open the evening, the Academy invited the singer and actor Janelle Monáe to perform a tribute to the movies. She led an elaborate number that involved backup dancers dressed in outfits honoring titles that didn’t make the cut, including ones that featured primarily black casts like Dolemite Is My Name, Us, and Queen & Slim. “It’s time to come alive,” Monáe sang, “because the Oscars is so white!”

It all felt like too little, too late. The show was trying to honor Hollywood’s changing landscape, but doing so in bizarrely produced, frivolous bits came off as unconvincing rather than sincere. After all, the casts and crews of the films recognized in the number weren’t about to celebrate potential wins. Tongue-in-cheek references and talk of progress mean nothing, in the end, without trophies.

That tension—between the Academy’s awareness of its shortcomings and its attempts to illustrate its interest in diversity—ran throughout the night. Midway into the ceremony, the Indian American actor Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect) delivered a freestyle rap about the Oscars. “I do not belong here; you don’t know me,” he said cheekily in his introduction. “I’m here to recap the show and emcee for a bunch of nominees who don’t look like me.” By the end of his rap, though, Ambudkar had changed his tune: “Keep an open mind,” he told the audience. “I’m sure we’ll find there’s plenty of light here for us all to shine.” As warm as that sentiment may be, it made little sense for it to be delivered to the crowd in Dolby Theater. It was Oscar night; the ballots were long tallied; the results were in. The message of embracing marginalized artists, therefore, felt empty.

A similar whiplash occurred later in the evening, when the actors Brie Larson, Gal Gadot, and Sigourney Weaver united onstage. Larson and Gadot are best known for playing comic-book characters—Larson as Captain Marvel, Gadot as Wonder Woman—and the pair thanked Weaver for paving the way in her iconic genre roles. Weaver declared that the trio wanted “to stand here together and say that all women are superheroes,” a thoughtful way to transition into revealing their purpose onstage: to introduce the show’s first female conductor in 92 years, Eímear Noone. But it turned out Noone would conduct only a medley of Best Original Score nominees before handing her baton back to the male maestro. The Academy was once again flaunting its inclusivity without fully delivering.

Indeed, the Oscars kept patting itself on the back by trotting out women and people of color, as if giving them airtime made up for the lack of true recognition. Actors like Beanie Feldstein, Zazie Beetz, and Mindy Kaling presented awards and introduced performances. Some, like the In the Heights star Anthony Ramos, arrived to present another presenter; in his case, Lin-Manuel Miranda. These moments appeared to be not only about making up for the lack of a host, but also about underlining the Academy’s expanding membership. Often, though, they only reminded the audience of the nominees’ homogeneity.

In that sense, it’s no wonder Parasite’s sweep came as such a welcome surprise—and its Best Picture win, such a genuine moment of triumph. Here was proof that the Academy cared for out-of-the-box storytelling from “voices long deprived,” as Monáe had put it in the opening number. The director Bong Joon Ho’s moving speeches energized the audience in a way the show’s more performative “woke” elements simply couldn’t.

Sure, it’s wonderful to see the Oscars give Kelly Marie Tran time to riff with Questlove, to watch Sandra Oh trade quips with Ray Romano, and to revel in Billy Porter taking the stage with Monáe and matching her in exuberance. Like Ambudkar said in his rap, “What you see in front of you is a sign of the times.” But honoring those times requires more than just dressing up dancers as characters from the overlooked films and doling out stage time during a telecast at the end of a long awards season. Parasite’s Best Picture finish showed that if the Oscars wants to call itself diverse and to brandish its inclusivity, it’ll have to do so by nominating films that reflect diversity in the first place. When the roster of honorees looks nothing like the presenters and performers on Oscar night, the self-congratulatory tone doesn’t work. Actual results will always matter more than awards-show routines.