Critic's Notebook: The BET Awards Powerfully Captures the Pulse of the Nation

Sure, Amanda Seales' audio sounded like it was coming from a shower stall — but thanks to emotional performances from the likes of Alicia Keys and Jennifer Hudson, the 2020 BET Awards packed a punch.
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Anybody tuning into Sunday night's BET Awards telecast seeking a template for how virtual awards shows may look as we head toward Emmys in the fall — and perhaps well beyond that — probably didn't leave with many workable solutions.

Certainly there are things that can be learned from any awards show scheduled for three hours and wrapping at precisely 11 p.m. ET — which has to count as the major advantage for turning a normally bloated live event into a carefully curated and edited broadcast. But let's not pretend that the BET Awards were really an awards show, especially this year.

Over those three primetime hours, there may have been five awards presented. Possibly six, if you count Beyonce receiving a Humanitarian of the Year prize. That's not unusual if your idea of an awards show is the Grammys, another telecast that has rendered the trophies and speeches essentially an afterthought.

That made the job for the BET Awards production team a hair easier on some levels. Winners are unpredictable, as are presenters. There's a reason why "banter" is one of the first things to get trimmed when shows start running long. Here, none of the few recipients spoke for more than a minute. Nobody, presenters or winners, pretended anything was happening live, so that was a burden lifted as well.

More than anything else, the producers' primary responsibility was one that no subsequent awards show will ever have to face as directly: addressing protests in the streets, Black Lives Matter rallies and widespread outrage about George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and too many other names to count or ignore, an idea made manifest in Alicia Keys' performance of the unbearably topical "Perfect Way to Die." The performance, conducted at night on an empty city street, ended with Keys kneeling on pavement etched with many of these tragic names.

Current events shaped the entire telecast, which began with a rather spectacular remix of "Fight the Power," featuring an all-star team of hip-hop royalty from Chuck D to Nas to Black Thought to a scene-stealing Rapsody. Da Baby's performance began with him pinned to the blacktop with a police officer's knee on his neck. Anderson .Paak and Jay Rock's "Lockdown" was driven by the chorus "You should have been downtown/The people are rising" and culminated in the throwing of a Molotov cocktail. Album of the Year winner Roddy Ricch was one of several performers wearing Black Lives Matter shirts.

The global pandemic was the cause for the evening's organizational uniqueness, but it became nearly an afterthought — though there were occasional reminders of how the coronavirus has disproportionately impacted the Black community.

The issues of the day were also central to Insecure co-star Amanda Seales' monologue, which followed 12-year-old Keedron Bryant's stripped down singing of "I Just Wanna Live" and started with the resigned declaration, "I would love to talk about regular everyday things, but racism always beats me to it." Seales got in jokes about mainstream appropriation of Juneteenth ("It's dope, but y'all don't let them Cinco de Mayo our day") and even got in a barb at Terry Crews ("Terry Crews couldn't make it. Not surprised."). But she stayed very on-topic. There was even darkness tinging the only comic sketch in the show, a Zoom call with Seales "undercover" with three "Karens," discussing their day's 911-calling misadventures.

It should be noted that as well as the show moved and as packed as it was with emotional performances — and as impressive as some of the quarantine production elements were — Seales sounded like she was being recorded in a small, low-ceilinged bathroom. It's one thing if a presenter or winner can't make their audio clean, but if you have a host who will be returning over and over again, you absolutely need to make sure that host is recorded with something resembling professional standards. Even if they are just in their garage.

The performances themselves varied wildly in ambition and scale, never lacking in power and mostly not lacking in execution. Of course, some of the spontaneity and energy that you might normally hope for from a live performance was lost. Instead you had to look to the ingenuity from the artists who, more often than not, kept me too entertained or moved to be pondering the lack of six-foot distancing.

There were vast production gaps. Megan Thee Stallion staged a full-on music video for "Savage," complete with dystopian desert visuals straight out of a Mad Max movie. Other than several dancers wearing masks, there was no sense of either intimacy or social-distanced caution. She just wanted to go big, and she succeeded.

Lil Wayne, in contrast, mostly stood on a dark stage spitting verses paying tribute to Kobe Bryant, letting the Black Mamba-themed videos do the heavy lifting. Somehow John Legend had a vast warehouse in which to perform "Never Break," which made me feel bad for Chloe X Halle singing and dancing in a storage locker (literally, it seemed) — at least until I saw that they'd blown their budget on the special effects allowing them to perform side-by-side with…themselves.

Somewhat less showy than the Megan Thee Stallion performance, but probably every bit as logistically astonishing, was Wayne Brady's tribute to Little Richard: a heavily choreographed one-shot journey through a seemingly random house complete with dancers (some in masks, others not), a multi-song medley and some actual musicianship.

Other real musical standouts included Jennifer Hudson, singing "Young, Gifted & Black" as a prelude to a trailer debut for her Aretha Franklin biopic, and Kierra Sheard and Karen Clark Sheard singing "Something Has to Break" as a show-stopping finale.

The sense that the BET Awards were speaking to nothing less than the nation's pulse was evident in how many advertisers wanted to be a part of the show, sponsoring segments and awards and making sure that big-ticket trailer debuts like J-Hud's Respect, Beyonce's Disney+ "visual album" Black Is King or Hamilton were queued up to strategic moments.

Ultimately, what can the Emmy — or even Golden Globe and Oscar — producers learn from the BET Awards? Probably not much, aside from making sure the host is properly mic-ed.

Otherwise, this was a unique telecast for a unique moment.