It seems to have all started in 1973 when Marlon Brando boycotted the Academy Awards and in his place sent Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to decline the Best Actor Oscar for his role in the Godfather. Brando’s boycott, and Littlefeather’s speech, were in protest of the portrayal of Native Americans in the film and television industry. Bravo. But the Academy and the media were not amused at this flagrant breech of Oscar protocol. Movies are entertainment after all, and politics is politics.
(Really? Explain the wall of separation between politics and entertainment to the scores of writers, producers, directors and actors who were blacklisted by McCarthy and his ilk in the 40s and 50s for their real or suspected political beliefs. But I digress.)
Only a year before the Brando/Littlefeather dustup, Jane Fonda – who had just returned from a hugely controversial trip to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War – surprised everyone by keeping quiet about her anti-war politics during her 1972 Oscar acceptance speech, but then sounded off to reporters backstage on her opposition to US foreign policy. “I was thinking,” Fonda said later, “that while we’re all sitting there giving out awards…there are murders being committed in our name in Indochina. I think everyone out there is as aware of it as I am and…wants it to end as much as I do. But I didn’t think it needed to be said.”
Some post-Fonda celebrities have obviously taken a different position in the ensuing years, as politics have worked their way into the Oscar lexicon despite the Academy’s best efforts to the contrary. Remember Vanessa Redgrave’s infamous “Zionist hoodlums” rant in 1978? Or Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins’ critique of US government detention of HIV-positive Haitian refugees in the 90s (at Guantanamo Bay, by the way). Or Richard Gere’s wish that then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping were watching so he could address Chinese human rights violations in Tibet. Or Michael Moore’s “fictitious president” attack on George W. Or Sean Penn’s eloquent 2009 defense of same sex marriage.
Viewers gradually came to expect at least one good political outburst each year and, for the most part, Hollywood didn’t disappoint. (As I think about it, that’s often why I like to watch the Oscars – to find out who will win this year’s Best Political Oration award.)
But 2015 was an Oscar game-changer by any account. For the first time, one recipient after another took the opportunity to tee up their favorite social-political cause before the estimated 40 million American viewers and hundreds of millions more around the world. And somewhat remarkably, each of them was well-reasoned, powerfully presented and wildly supported by a cheering Academy audience. (Who’ll forget Meryl Streep’s on-her-feet fist-pumping “go girl” in response to Patricia Arquette’s impassioned plea for wage equality for women?)
No less remarkable, the morning-after media was overwhelmingly supportive, and the political speeches were among the headlines in virtually every Oscar post-game report. “Imitation Game” screenwriter Graham Moore made deeply personal remarks about why the story of Alan Turing, a closeted gay codebreaker during World War II, resonated with him. “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu used his platform to call out America’s broken immigration system and to highlight the contributions of previous immigrant generations from his native Mexico. And the tone was set right up-front with Oscar host Neil Patrick Harris’s opening shot: “Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest.”
But the political highlight of the evening, by far, was the electrifying acceptance speech of Best Song winners John (Stephens) Legend and Common (Lonnie Lynn) who won for their anthem “Glory” from the movie “Selma”. As Oscar watchers will never forget, Legend and Common performed “Glory” on a reconstructed set of the Edmund Pettus Bridge over which the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. led the historic 1965 civil rights march.
“Selma is now because the struggle for justice is right now,” John Legend said. “The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and social status,” continued Common. “The spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago dreaming of a better life to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression. To the people in Hong Kong protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion and elevated by love for all human beings.” said Common. CLICK HERE to watch the full 3-minute video of this unforgettable Oscar speech (and HERE to watch the “Glory” performance).
“We know,” said Legend, “that the Voting Rights Act that they fought 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country today. We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real. We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
So, why has the tone of the Oscar’s taken such a clear political turn, and why in 2015? Maybe it’s due to a confluence of issues high on the public political consciousness: Ferguson, gay marriage, income inequality, immigration. Maybe it’s because we’re in the early stages of a highly polarized 2016 presidential campaign. Or maybe it’s because these actors, directors and writers are the new thought leaders in a world where trust and confidence in elected officials, and government itself, are at an all-time low.
Whatever the reasons, I take my hat off to these disrupters, these rule-breakers, who are finding new ways to use their celebrity to remind an alienated public of the imperative for social change. Bring it on. And I hated “Birdman”, by the way.