Editorial: Oscar Worthy Political Speech
In 1973, when Marlon Brando won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in “The Godfather,” he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, a Native American activist, to turn down the award on his behalf in protest of the poor treatment of Native Americans in films. As Littlefeather spoke, some members of the audience applauded and others booed. On the one hand, she was raising a pertinent issue on a prominent platform. On the other, she was criticizing the very reason they were there to celebrate and bringing politics to the Academy Awards stage. For the Academy, anything that could potentially adversely affect the image of the institution and the film industry upon which it was built was best left out of the event. To avoid similar future incidents, the use of proxies to deliver acceptance speeches was banned. Littlefeather had set the precedent, but it would take many years before it was expected that actors and filmmakers use the Oscars to voice their views on social and political issues.
Over the years, there have been a number of memorable moments that resonate with our current times. In 1978, during her acceptance speech for Best Supporting Actress for her role in “Julia,” Vanessa Redgrave called members of the Jewish Defense League a bunch of “Zionist hoodlums.” The group had picketed the event in protest of Redgrave’s involvement in “The Palestinian,” a pro-Palestinian documentary she had produced and starred in earlier that year. Redgrave was booed and received significant backlash for her speech.
In 1993, Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins used the Oscars platform to plead with Washington D.C. to grant entry into the United States to the Haitian political refugees detained at Guantanamo Bay and denied entry because they were HIV positive.
In 2000, during his acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay for “Cider House Rules,” John Irving used the platform to deliver a pro-choice message, which was also the central theme of his film.
In 2003, Halle Berry, the first black woman to win an Oscar for best actress used her acceptance speech to highlight the significance of the moment. The Academy had a longstanding history of low levels of representation on its list of nominees and winners for people of color. It is also worth noting that the first black person to ever win an Academy Award, Hattie McDaniel, won it in 1939 for her portrayal of Mammie, a caricature that had long been used as a racial stereotype and a tool for degrading black women. In 2016, fueling the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Jada Pinket-Smith and several others boycotted the Oscars in protest of the lack of diversity on the list of nominees. The Academy responded by issuing a statement that they would be “taking dramatic steps to alter the makeup of their membership” to ensure inclusion and diversity. Pinket-Smith acknowledged Littlefeather’s stance at the 1973 ceremony as justification for her own position.
Using the Oscars as a platform for taking a stand on social and political issues has over the years been known to evoke mixed reactions amongst both the actors and filmmakers, as well as the public. However, aside from the envelope mix-up at the end of the ceremony, the 2017 Oscars reflected a distinctive air of solidarity in the messaging. Part of Jimmy Kimmel’s opening monologue, some wardrobe choices, remarks by presenters, acceptance speeches by winners and some of the commercials shown during commercial breaks all addressed a common concern: the divisiveness of some of the policies being put in place by the Trump administration, particularly the infamous travel ban. Reminiscent of the 1973 Academy Awards, one specific moment stood out. In protest against Trump’s travel ban and out of respect for his fellow Iranians, producer Asghar Farhadi did not attend the ceremony to accept his Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Farhadi sent Iranian-American businesswoman and NASA scientist Anousheh Ansari to accept the award and deliver the acceptance speech on his behalf. His choice of proxy was a strong statement highlighting how important the contributions of immigrants and women are not only to the development of this country, but to progress throughout the world, including places like Iran.
Should actors and filmmakers stick to acting and making films and leave the politicking to politicians? Certainly not. As Viola Davis put it, theirs is “the only profession that celebrates lives lived.” It would be a disservice to their profession if on the biggest night in the film industry performers and filmmakers did not highlight these very real problems that they themselves as well as the people whose lives they celebrate in film face.
The Oscars stage is an important platform that wields significant influence, and the 2017 Oscars demonstrated how some of the finest in the motion picture industry can present a meaningful political message with grace and respect.