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5th March 2023

The BAFTAs, the thing, and the Woman King: Ariana DeBose celebrates women in film

Ariana DeBose pays tribute to women in film in a very questionable rap performed at the BAFTAs

In the UK’s biggest night of celebrating cinema, Ariana DeBose’s opening performance became the most talked about moment of this year’s BAFTA ceremony – and rightly so!

DeBose is a stage and screen triple threat. Well known for her Oscar and (conveniently enough) BAFTA-winning performance in Steven Spielberg’s West Side Story (2021). She even starred in the original Broadway production of Hamilton.

Despite her numerous accolades her talent was lost on some Twitter users as her camp and energetic performance was labelled “awkward” and a trigger for “secondhand embarrassment”. DeBose even deactivated her Twitter account due to the so-called online backlash.

In her number, DeBose performs on stage honouring women in film in a very interesting rap. She mentions many talented women from Charlotte Wells and Dolly De Leon, to Emma Thompson and even Cate Blanchett. The initial reaction from celebrities in the room were mainly of baffled looks and polite smiles with Jamie Lee Curtis bobbing along. It’s clear that DeBose brought along her theatrical background as her performance, though dosed in awkwardness, was none less than a show.

The lyrics “Angela Bassett did the thing, Viola Davis my woman king” sung in an out-of-breath cadence would be the highlight for the internet. And what exactly does “Jamie Lee you are all of us” mean? These lyrics have amassed both confusion and acceptance for their nonsensical manner especially on TikTok. With hundreds flocking to the sound bite to mimic her rap adding their own little dances. DeBose’s lyrics are chaotic but inject fun into a very prestigious and serious award ceremony.

Nick Bullen a producer of the BAFTAs claims that the DeBose criticism was “incredibly unfair” and claimed that people “in the room absolutely loved it”. I agree with Bullen in that most people actually enjoyed the performance. It has been discussed that reactions to DeBose’s performance have been mostly negative. But in fact,  it seems the negative criticism online is minimal.

Just search DeBose’s name on Twitter and it’s all appreciation for her left-field performance. Yes, many viewers are confused by her rap but love it for its offbeat nature. It’s for sure that DeBose’s performance has cemented its place in the internet’s meme culture. Some Twitter users even suggest DeBose lean into the publicity and use it to her advantage.

In an interview with Zoe Ball for BBC Radio 2, DeBose acknowledges the online praise “apparently gay Twitter seemed to like it. So that’s good”. She even recalls Baz Luhrmann, director of Elvis (2022), approaching her to compliment the performance.

DeBose reveals that the BAFTAs specifically wanted her to perform. This wasn’t DeBose’s first gig at performing at an award ceremony. She also opened the 2022 Tony Awards with a number titled This is Your Round of Applause. Compared to her BAFTA performance, this one seems more ambitious and extravagant. The low production feel of the BAFTA number may come from the fact that she apparently only had a few weeks to organise it.

Since the night of the BAFTAs many celebrities have mentioned DeBose in their own performances and interviews. Lizzo mimicked a part of the rap in a concert in Amsterdam. Jamie Lee Curtis in a red-carpet interview calls the performance “joyous, celebratory, sisterly, hot, spicy”. Angela Bassett herself even exclaims that she “did the thing” after winning Entertainer of the Year at the NAACP Image Awards.

Despite all the fuss and attention, Ariana DeBose’s goal of honouring women came true as we will still be singing along to her rap for the rest of 2023.

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