She Interrupted an Oscars Telecast

It was a race to the podium.

By Elinor Burkett
Photograph: Illustration by Jameson Simpson.

I’d never made a film before. So winding up backstage at the Oscars lugging my very own gold dude felt so unlikely, I had to suppress a fit of giggles. Trapped in a fog at the absurdity, I didn’t realize that I’d just become the “crazy redhead” who’d stormed the stage. Then my cell phone started to vibrate.

“Do you know what you’ve done?” a reporter from Salon asked. “You’re being compared to Kanye West.”

Kanye who?

Let’s rewind for a moment: I had produced a documentary tribute to the Afro-fusion band Liyana—poor, disabled young Zimbabwean musicians whose grit and humor had humbled me. But the director, Roger Ross Williams, and I locked horns when he wanted to focus on the band’s only female member. The resulting argument exploded into a lawsuit. It was settled—pretty amicably, I thought. And the film was nominated for the best documentary short-subject award. But when I arrived in L.A. for the Oscars ceremony, Roger pretended I didn’t exist. That night, I took my seat suffused with exhilaration and dread. Roger was in my row but on the aisle, his mother at his side. When our names were called, he leaped up and hurtled toward the stage. His mother, who was leaning forward on her cane, blocked my way. Before I could get around her, Roger was at the microphone, sharing his personal excitement. As I headed to the stage, I didn’t consider for an instant that 41 million viewers might assume I was some random wacko instead of the film’s other winner. My audience was in Zimbabwe. I leaned into the microphone to honor the amazing young musicians in the film. “Tatenda,” I concluded after naming the members of the group. That means “thank you” in their native Shona.

The following morning, as I struggled to convince the Transportation Security Administration workers at the airport that no, my 8.5-pound Oscar was not a weapon, a guard did a double take. “You!” she gasped. “You’re the woman who put that rude fella in his place.” And we shared a laugh.

Editor’s note: As for the inconvenient cane, Williams told Salon, “My mother got up to hug me. And my mother is 87 years old. She was excited.”

Originally published in the July/August 2010 issue of More.

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