Following the surge of controversy surrounding the lack of diversity in this year’s Academy Awards nominations, celebrities, film executives, and moviegoers alike waited in anticipation to see how Chris Rock would handle the controversy as this year’s host, and just how far he would go. Unsurprisingly, Rock was relentless in his criticisms of the Academy failing to nominate any African-American actors or actresses, and he spent the majority of the three and a half hour long event taking digs at members of the Academy, the nominated films, and some of the evening’s (white) presenters. While reactions to his hosting abilities have been mixed (some have criticized his jokes directed at Asian people and the #AskHerMore campaign), Rock undoubtedly used the hosting opportunity to open a dialogue with audiences and filmmakers about the issue of racism and unequal representation in film. As the film community continues to respond to his choice to boldly speak on the topics of racism and diversity, let’s take a look back at five moments when celebrities used the Oscars to speak out on social and political issues.
Marlon Brando Boycotts the Oscars to Protest the Misrepresentation of Native Americans (March 27, 1973)
Marlon Brando, one of the most acclaimed actors of the 50s to 70s era, made waves when he refused to attend the 1973 Oscars as an act of protest against the incident at Wounded Knee (in which several American Indians were killed by FBI agents while seizing the town of Wounded Knee to protest a corrupt tribal president) and the ongoing misrepresentation of Native Americans in film and television. Although Brando won the Oscar for Best Actor at the 1973 ceremony for his iconic role in “The Godfather,” he sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Apache Indian and president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, to take the stage in his place. Littlefeather refused the award on Brando’s behalf, stating he would not accept it due to “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” (Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database) Although Littlefeather was met with boos from the audience, and she and Brando were later criticized by industry executives, the daring move has become one of the most memorable Oscars moments, and the power of using such a massive platform to bring light to one of the most misrepresented populations in film is undeniable.
Halle Berry Makes History As the First African-American to Win Best Actress (March 24, 2002)
Fourteen years before the issue of unequal representation and racism would take center stage at the Academy Awards, the 2002 ceremony seemed to suggest that diversity and equal opportunity were finally becoming the norm in Hollywood. For the first time in Oscars history, both best-acting awards went to African-American actors (Denzel Washington and Halle Berry), and Berry made history as the first (though, as of yet, only) African-American person to win Best Actress in a Leading Role. Although Berry spent most of her acceptance speech issuing thanks to various friends, family members, and business associates, she notably opened her speech by dedicating the win to “every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened.” (Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database) While Berry avoided directly addressing the issue of racism in her speech, her emotional time on stage has become one of the most important reminders that the topic of diversity in film is still relevant and still requires action.
Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black Call for Gay Rights (February 22, 2009)
The topic of gay marriage took center stage at the 2009 Oscars as Sean Penn and Dustin Lance Black (who both won awards for their work on the film “Milk”) used their acceptance speeches to call for equal rights. After winning the award for Best Original Screenplay for “Milk,” a biopic of politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, writer Dustin Lance Black (who became one of a few openly gay Oscar-winners) used his time on stage to send a heartfelt message to the LGBTQ community, saying: “you are beautiful, wonderful creatures of value… very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights, federally, across this great nation of ours.” (Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database). Penn, meanwhile, took a more aggressive tactic when mentioning gay rights during his acceptance speech for Best Actor, which he won for portraying Milk. He stated: “It is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way of support.” (Academy Awards Speech Database). He continued, “We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone.” Although Black last took the Oscars stage in 2009, he has actively spoken on the topic of gay marriage and equal rights since, and he recently issued a public reminder that the LGBTQ community’s history of representation and success at the Oscars should not be forgotten. His Tweet reads: “Knowing our LGBTQ history is important. We stand on the shoulders of countless brave men and women who paved the way for us” (@DLanceBlack).
Patricia Arquette Endorses Wage Equality for Women (February 22, 2015)
Although there were a number of memorable moments from last year’s Academy Awards (remember that incredible “Glory” performance and that less incredible green card joke from Sean Penn?), Patricia Arquette delivered one of the most powerful moments during her acceptance speech. Arquette, who took home the Best Supporting Actress award for her role in “Boyhood,” began her speech traditionally enough with a round of thanks to her friends, family, and co-workers. As she wrapped up her speech, however, she ended with a powerful call to action: “To every taxpayer and citizen of this nation… It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” (Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database). The actress’s bold proclamation was met with a sweeping round of applause from the audience, and she clearly received Meryl Streep’s stamp of approval.
Leonardo DiCaprio Raises Awareness about Climate Change (February 28, 2016)
As one of the most anticipated moments of the 2016 Oscars, it seems the world collectively rejoiced when DiCaprio finally nabbed an Oscar after four acting nominations over the course of his two-decade-long career. In his acceptance speech for Best Actor (which he won for his work in “The Revenant”), DiCaprio took a refreshing approach and used almost half of his time on stage to discuss the issue of climate change. He said, “Climate change is real… we need to work collectively together and stop procrastinating… Let us not take this planet for granted” (Academy Awards Acceptance Speech Database). DiCaprio also issued a subtle call to action as he encouraged support for world leaders who speak “for all of humanity, for the indigenous people… for the billions and billions of underprivileged people who will be most affected by this, for our children’s children, and for those people out there whose voices have been drowned out by the politics of greed.” As an outspoken environmentalist who has taken great action to support conservation efforts and raise awareness on environmental issues, DiCaprio is one of the best examples of the power a celebrity can have in supporting the political and social issues they are passionate about.
There is still much work to be done to ensure that the system of the Academy Awards is fair, diverse, and all-inclusive. Each ceremony will likely bring about a fresh crop of controversy, and a new topic of discussion may take center stage each year. At times, it can be disheartening to see how frequently the Oscars overlook the work of countless hard-working, passionate, and talented filmmakers. For the time being, however, it is inspiring to recognize those celebrities who have dedicated their careers and lives to taking a stand, raising awareness, and calling for action in a number of important issues. At the end of the day, the Academy Awards are not only a time to celebrate the work of ground-breaking, visionary, and boundary-pushing filmmakers, but also an opportunity to speak out on the issues people need to become aware of and educate themselves on.