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The 2020 BET Awards Set a Bar for Award Shows in the COVID-19 Era

Black excellence was on full display in Sunday's superb broadcast

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Malcolm Venable

Black excellence was on full display Sunday night as the 20th BET Awards delivered a seamless feat of an awards show that was the most important in its history.

At a time when most other live shows have understandably packed it in, the BET Awards seized a crucial moment and won. Broadcast on both BET and CBS, the nation's leading broadcast network, with the Black Lives Matter movement inseparable from the show, the program was impactful, technically impressive, and a model for success in the COVID-19 age. 

Instead of being hindered by limitations and restrictions, the BET Awards thrived in spite of them. We have frankly all grown weary of the modern-day awards show format, which typically has jittery celebrities reading forced jokes off a teleprompter and elaborate, fiery stages used to dress up otherwise so-so performances. This ceremony gave everyone involved the unexpected perk of showcasing their individual styles and visions. Megan Thee Stallion delivered a Mad Max-inspired mini-movie in the desert replete with off-road vehicles, and a tiered stage made of scaffolding. Wayne Brady tapped into the late Little Richard's fabulous flamboyance with a booty-shaking tribute inside what looked like a modernist California mansion. Jennifer Hudson took viewers to church with a knockout performance of "Young, Gifted and Black," in a stark white studio. Every performance looked unique in a way that's impossible to achieve inside one of the auditoriums such shows usually take place in, and yet it all felt cohesive. 

Here Are All the Winners of the 2020 BET Awards

Host Amanda Seales held the show together in a way that showcased her formidable talents. Hosting an awards show is a thankless gig that all but guarantees some hateration; even if a host does a decent job, viewers will eventually tire of the emcee as the hours roll on and hold her personally responsible for their own boredom. Maybe Seales' self-isolation worked in her favor -- there was no audience to cut to, and therefore nobody making a forced smile through banter -- but she seemed relaxed, confident, and very funny. Her jokes and sketches, executed amid many outfit changes and nifty backgrounds, were fun and lively, and it felt like we were watching a bunch of inviting TikToks. She transitioned into more serious moments smoothly, too. 

Indeed, seriousness was very much the point, and it was made with unrelenting clarity. A stirring update of Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" opened the show, with Chuck D joined by Nas, Black Thought, Rapsody, and more rapping alongside images of protests and police violence. DaBaby began "Rockstar" with an officer's knee on his neck -- a purposefully horrifying image meant to make us feel the pain George Floyd and so many others have felt and continue to feel. Anderson .Paak turned "Lockdown" into a kind of short play, with the artist, his face bloodied, moving from behind a drum set to a replica of one of the downtown LA streets where civil unrest occurred just weeks ago. Alicia Keys took to the street, too, beaming images of Breonna Taylor and others murdered by police on the exterior of a high-rise and showing their names in the street. Later in the show, A-list stars including Tracee Ellis Ross, Whoopi Goldberg, and Michael B. Jordan read the names of people killed by state-sanctioned violence. 

Black music and artistry has always kept activism close to the chest; Black artists never have the luxury of ignoring the realities faced by their families, friends, and fans. But with this ceremony, the BET Awards showed in unflinching, visceral fashion how hope, joy, tragedy, resilience, pride, and unbridled creativity run so deep in the culture every day, but especially now. Seven months into a trying 2020, Black people have endured the heavier burden of a pandemic, as well as substantial grief after George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more tragedies laid systemic racism bare. The BET Awards were a welcome boost of energy for weary Black people in dire need of a celebration, and it was hopefully a teachable moment for everyone else watching too. Black culture, as this year's slogan said, cannot be canceled. And it's pretty awesome.     

Black lives matter. Text DEMANDS to 55156 to sign Color of Change's petition to reform policing, and visit blacklivesmatter.carrd.co for more ways to donate, sign petitions, and protest safely.