The Weeknd didn’t win an Academy Award but he did win over the Academy Award audience, seizing the spotlight during a homogenous Oscars in which he was one of the only performers of colour in award contention.
Less than five years after Abel Tesfaye nervously made his public performance debut, there he was sashaying across the Dolby Theatre stage in a tuxedo, confidently crooning “Earned It,” from the Fifty Shades of Grey soundtrack, while black-clad dancers cavorted around him and dangled from wires. Sensual, confident and subtly nimble, Tesfaye seemed totally undaunted by the roomful of famous faces.
The prize for best original song instead went to Sam Smith and Jimmy Napes’ “Writing’s on the Wall” from Spectre. Still, for a 26-year-old who once maintained an intentionally invisible profile and lingered in the alt-R&B margins, the gilded Oscars performance provided the best evidence yet of Tesfaye’s ceiling-free capacity as a mainstream pop fixture.
“Singing in front of that kind of audience will take a star and turn him into a superstar,” said Roz Weston, ET Canada senior reporter and co-host of KiSS 92.5’s Roz & Mocha Show.
“This was the ultimate payoff for the ultimate artist of the year.”
Yes, the fact that Tesfaye handled such a demanding assignment with assured aplomb spoke volumes. And perhaps the fact that Oscars voters opted not to honour the year’s only prominent performer of colour did too.
In the year that the Oscars’ whiteness became too glaring to ignore, observers figure Tesfaye’s status as the only black nominee must have, fairly or not, coloured his evening.
“Unfortunately, it sort of takes what could be a fantastic night to celebrate his song and his achievements, and it’s the only question that people on the red carpet would want to ask,” Weston said.
Buffy Sainte-Marie, perhaps, could relate to feeling like an Oscars outsider. She won an Academy Award in 1983 in the same category Tesfaye was nominated, and believes she’s still the only Native American Oscar winner. (The Academy didn’t respond to a request for verification.)
So she’s certainly not surprised that the diversity issue has finally been dragged to the fore.
“They’re old folks and they’re all white,” she said of Oscar voters. “They don’t think they’re being racist — they just don’t know anybody except other old people who, like them, happen to be white.”
A voter herself, Sainte-Marie says the ongoing changes to encourage inclusivity “had to happen,” and urgently.
If Tesfaye’s Oscars experience was shaded by the controversy, meanwhile, he can take solace in the fact that he overcame, “Earned It,” and nailed it.