Virtual awards and genuine diversity: Baftas step tentatively into the modern age

This year’s ceremony will exhibit the effects of top-down changes made to an institution with its eyes suddenly set on the future

Whatever the results, the 74th British Academy Film Awards, which take place this weekend, will be almost unrecognisable from last year’s ceremony. This is not just thanks to the pandemic. Over the past 14 months, the prizes have undergone a transformation of unprecedented scope and rapidity.

The most evident and widely applauded change is the breadth and diversity of nominees, with Rocks – Sarah Gavron’s coming-of-age drama about a group of black British schoolgirls – leading the pack, alongside Chloé Zhao’s elegiac Nomadland. Both have seven nominations.

While no people of colour featured in Bafta’s acting shortlists last year, this year there are 16 among the 24 nominees, with the late Chadwick Boseman favourite to win the leading actor award for his role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.

Four of this year’s directing nominees are female, including Zhao, but not including Emerald Fennell, the British director who is Oscar-nominated for her debut feature, Promising Young Woman. Three of the six directors up for the award are people of colour.

Such shortlists are vindication of the 120 changes brought in by the organisation in the wake of last year’s #BaftasSoWhite backlash. These include an overhaul of membership, compulsory checks on voters having viewed movies and the insistence that juries decide on final shortlists (after longlists are compiled by individual chapters).

These changes signal not just the evolution of a body that had long been associated with the championing of white, period, “prestige” British fare ripe for international consumption, but also a shift in the emphasis of the awards’ remit.

Hot favourite … Chadwick Boseman (centre) in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.
Hot favourite … Chadwick Boseman (centre) in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom. Photograph: David Lee/AP

For the past 20 years, the Baftas have taken place a fortnight before the Oscars; a scheduling decision from which they have derived considerable status. As voting for the Academy Awards enters its final furlong, the Baftas are the last chance for nominees to impress those yet to cast their ballots.

As well as a well-dressed international platform, the Baftas function as a relatively reliable Oscars bellwether. A strong performance in London usually translates to a sweep of silverware in Hollywood 14 days later.

Yet this year, Bafta’s decision to amplify minority voices means it looks like a radical outlier rather than a stepping stone, its shortlist bearing little resemblance to any of the other major film awards. Castigated in 2020 for what many felt to be a troublingly old-fashioned list, it now feels positively futuristic – and exposes the lack of ambition elsewhere.

The changes do not stop with the films in competition. This year’s ceremony has been split into two, in theory to ensure the “craft” awards are not dashed through – or worse still, edited out of the main broadcast entirely. This means that prizes for the likes of production design, costumes, and makeup and hair will be handed out in an hour-long ceremony broadcast on BBC Two on Saturday night.

The 17 remaining awards will be given out from 7-9pm the following night on BBC One: two hours earlier than usual (a decision rumoured to revolve around Line of Duty earmarking the coveted 9pm spot). This earlier timeframe will make for a more sanitised ceremony than usual, suitable – in theory – for family viewing.

Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman.
Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. Photograph: AP

Regular host Graham Norton, whose patter might have been leant towards the risque, is sitting out proceedings in favour of co-hosts Dermot O’Leary and Edith Bowman, usually seen wrangling celebrities on the red carpet.

There will be no red carpet outside the Royal Albert Hall this year, although some presenters will be turning up in person to record their segments in front of an empty auditorium. These include Hugh Grant, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Tom Hiddleston, Priyanka Chopra Jonas, James McAvoy and David Oyelowo. Meanwhile, Rose Byrne, Andra Day, Anna Kendrick and Renée Zellweger will pitch in with presenting duties from a studio in Los Angeles. All nominees will appear virtually.

This setup recalls the Golden Globes six weeks ago, when the broadcast was beset by technical glitches. Yet the Bafta team have – once again – introduced a two-and-a-half-hour timelag between the actual ceremony and its broadcast, which should allow for the smoothing over of Zoom difficulties, as well as the expunging of expletives.

Traditionally, this gap has led to an awkward situation in which the results are reported just as the show begins its broadcast; this year Bafta will embargo the results until they are revealed on TV in a bid to heighten the tension for viewers.

The Duke of Cambridge, who is the president of Bafta, will feature on both nights: his speech on Sunday will celebrate the resilience of the film industry over the past year. It is not known if this was recorded before the death of his grandfather, Prince Philip.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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