The Oscars may very obviously be in its flop era, but last night’s awards show did give us a few gems. Daniel Kaluuya’s massive win for his performance (and the charmingly embarrassing acceptance speech that followed) was one of them, reminding us that in a sea of wrongs, Hollywood can get it right if it actually decides to. Unfortunately, even the shine of Kaluuya’s big moment was almost dimmed by a particularly unfortunate and very public instance of casual racism.
Kaluuya took home the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, a win that he earned thanks to his heartfelt and passionate depiction of the late Black Panther Party’s Chairman Fred Hampton in Judas and the Black Messiah. His category was very competitive, even featuring his own cast mate Lakeith Stanfield, but the British actor came out victorious. On stage, Kaluuya relished in the moment and expressed his gratitude at being a boy from the estates of London being able to have his own Oscar.
“I’m so happy to be alive,” he exclaimed to the audience at the Dolby Theatre. “So I’m going to celebrate that tonight!”
However, that celebration was almost ruined by one startling interview that immediately followed his win. Newly-released footage from the Oscars press room show Kaluuya doing interviews about the joyous occasion, with one reporter killing the vibe by mistaking him for fellow Black man and Best Actor nominee, One Night in Miami’s Leslie Odom, Jr.
Daniel Kaluuya responds to a journalist who mistook him for Leslie Odom Jr. at the #Oscars and asked him: “What was it like being directed by Regina [King]?”
— Film Updates (@TheFilmUpdates) April 26, 2021
“I’ve been following you since the beginning of your career,” began the reporter as Daniel listened intently, Oscar in hand. “I was wondering what it meant for you to be directed by Regina [King]?”
This isn’t just an innocent flub. Not being able to tell Black people apart from one another is actually quite racist because it stems from the problematic idea that we’re somehow indistinguishable from each other. To make matters worse, Kaluuya was one of the most recognised people at the event — he’d just won an Oscar, and even talked about the nuanced personal and cultural impact of his role during his speech. It was her job to know who she was talking to, so why didn’t she know who Odom Jr. was?
It’s a tough moment to watch because it never should have happened, but also because many Black people have been there before. (Who among us hasn’t been confused with the other Black girl in your office because you both had “braids” that one time, even though yours were actually knotless box braids, and hers were tiny Senegalese twists?) Kaaluya’s response to the microaggression was even more relatable, seeing him briefly react to the clear error, giving her a chance to restate her question, and then being generous enough to provide an eloquent answer anyway. When someone had played him on the most important night of his career, he still had to be the bigger, more gracious person. (The journalist later claimed on Twitter that she “didn’t” confuse the two, and is “sorry if it seemed that way.”)
Not to belabour the point, but conversations like #OscarsSoWhite aren’t just about white people taking home the awards — they also include moments like this, where Black people and other people of colour in Hollywood are treated differently even when they win. Youn Yuh-Jung shouldn’t have been asked what Brad Pitt smells like while literally holding her first Oscar in her hands. Chloé Zhao’s Best Picture moment should’ve closed the Oscars instead of the heartless stunt they pulled with Chadwick Boseman. And every single person in that press room should’ve known Daniel Kaluuya’s name.
— MOBO (@MOBOAwards) April 26, 2021
Thankfully, the Oscar-winner didn’t let the incident ruin his night completely; he went on to celebrate the major accomplishment in a huge way, kicking it with Snowfall actor Damson Idris and grabbing a fancy dinner with Drake (who was cheesing like he himself had nabbed the award). As he inevitably goes on to stack up more accolades in the next few years, Kaluuya probably won’t ever forget the day that he won his very first Oscar. Unfortunately, that special memory will also be tainted, even if slightly, by the recollection that casual racism just couldn’t take a break for one night.