The producer of Sunday night’s 2023 BAFTA Awards hit back at the Twitter criticism heaped on singer/actress Ariana DeBose‘s show-opening musical medley after the West Side Story star came under fire for the bit that mixed a classic 1980s hit with an original rap.
“We wanted to open the show with some energy, some fun, and also lay out straight away that this was hopefully going to feel like a different night, but with a familiarity as well, and what Ariana did was exactly that,” producer Nick Bullen told Variety the morning after the telecast. He said that DeBose and her team put the entire bit together in close consultation with the show’s musical director and choreographer and that he didn’t think she deserved the biting backlash.
Bullen said the criticism was “incredibly unfair” and that despite the awkwardness on the telecast, the mood in the room was “more celebratory.”
“I think a lot of people don’t like change, and there’s a view that the BAFTAs have to be this slightly stiff, traditional British, middle-England messaging,” said Bullen. “But American awards shows have much more razzmatazz, much more showbiz, and perhaps a broader range of people being involved. We felt we’re not about revolution, we’re about evolution.”
The highly choreographed bit opened with DeBose singing a high-energy version of the 1985 Eurythmics/Aretha Franklin collab “Sisters Are Doin’ It for Themselves,” as a group of dancers pulled at her dress and removed long pieces of fabric. The performance then flipped into a solo rap in which DeBose did call-outs to a variety of nominated actors and celebs in the audience.
It was the latter bit — specifically her awkward Angela Bassett and Viola Davis shout-outs — that got the Twitterverse revved up. “Angela Bassett did the thing/ Viola Davis my ‘Woman King’/ Blanchett Cate you’re a genius/ Jamie Lee you are all of us,” rapped DeBose in a clip that quickly went viral after the show thanks to what looked like less-than-enthusiastic looks on the faces of the actresses she mentioned.
“I think it’s incredibly unfair, to be frank. I absolutely loved it,” Bullen told Variety of the pile-on. “Everybody I’ve spoken to who was in the room absolutely loved it. She’s a huge star, she was amazing. The songs she was singing are very familiar songs, the room was clapping, and people were sort of dancing to the music. That rap section in the middle, mentioning the women in the room, was because it’s been a great year for women in film, and we wanted to celebrate that. And here is a woman of color who is at the absolute top of her game.”
Oscar winner DeBose deactivated her Twitter account after the online backlash to the performance and at press time had not made a public statement about the divided reaction.
Watch DeBose’s performance and check out some of the responses below.