There is always one moment in the annual Academy Awards broadcast that rules the headlines the next morning. Usually, it’s a political statement of some sort, in the vein of the time in 1973 when Marlon Brando sent Native American civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather to the podium to decline his Best Actor award for The Godfather.
1973: Native American actor Sacheen Littlefeather boo'd (and cheered) by Hollywood at the Oscars before being mocked by Clint Eastwood and almost physically assaulted by John Wayne simply for asking that Indigenous people not to be dehumanized in film.pic.twitter.com/BgOiuBq4hR
— Rafael Shimunov (@rafaelshimunov) October 11, 2021
Today, the world was abuzz not about any trenchant social commentary uttered by actors and other film professionals who refuse to abandon their political values upon stepping onto the Oscar stage, but by the Best Actor award winner’s shocking violence against the comedian presenter who had the audacity to make a joke at the expense of his wife’s haircut.
The slapping incident between Will Smith and Chris Rock seemingly overshadowed any potential controversy over the political content — both overt and between the lines — that made this year’s Academy Awards one of the most politically progressive awards ceremonies yet.
It’s obvious that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has been working to change its image after the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending as a result of the 2015 acting nominations overlooking all the potential actors of color who could have made the cut.
In a sense then, the fact that the opening six minutes of last night’s ceremony highlighted Black talent in the form of Venus and Serena Williams and Beyonce felt like a political act.
It wasn’t even as if the Academy had shoehorned them into the broadcast without good reason. Beyonce was there to perform a song that had been nominated for Best Original Song, one that was featured in “King Richard,” a movie about the Williams sisters’ coach and father that featured actors playing the two tennis superstars.
It’s clear from the number of minorities — both people of color and members of the LGBTQ community — who were nominated this year, invited to be presenters or to perform in the show that the members of the academy were eager to be seen as having abandoned any bigotry that may have previously been associated with the awards.
The fact that the producers of the broadcast decided to have three women host the ceremony this year — Regina Hall, Amy Schumer, and Wanda Sykes —could also be seen as a sign of woke progress, although in one of the first political jokes of the night, Schumer explained the unusual hosting arrangement as being due to the fact that “it was cheaper than hiring one man,” referring to the disparities in pay scales for women in Hollywood as well as everywhere else.
With a Black woman, an out-loud lesbian, and Schumer — who said she represented “unbearable White women who call the cops when you get a little too loud” — it was difficult to fault the Academy for failing to try to be inclusive.
Wanda Sykes got in at least one good political joke in the opening monologue after Regina Hall explained how “toxic masculinity turned into cruelty for women and children.”
“Damn that Mitch McConnell,” Sykes interjected to much laughter from the audience.
The audience erupted with cheers when Sykes responded to the recent signing of the “Don’t Say Gay” bill by Florida Governor Ron DeSantis by saying “you people in Florida, we’re going to have a gay night,” as her co-hosts joined her in chanting “gay, gay, gay!” repeatedly.
It was difficult to believe the resurgence in state-sponsored homophobia in some Republican-controlled states was real as Oscar history was made when an openly gay Latina, Ariana DeBose, won the award for Best Supporting Actress for her role as Anita in the remake of West Side Story. Her inspiring acceptance speech ended with a shoutout to “anyone who has ever questioned your identity,” reassuring them in the words of the late lyricist of West Side Story, Stephen Sondheim, that “there is, indeed, a place for us.”
There was also a place in this year’s awards for another under-represented minority in Hollywood when Troy Kotsur won the Best Supporting Actor award for CODA, becoming only the second deaf individual, and the first actor, to be so honored. It was difficult not to be as reduced to tears as when watching the actual film when you witnessed the audience in the Dolby Theater applauding Kotsur in sign language by waving, rather than clapping, their hands.
The conspicuous presence of sign language interpreters during the acceptance speeches for CODA’s multiple award winners also marked a major step for inclusion at the ceremony compared to previous years.
One of the most overtly political comments, however, came after the turmoil caused by Will Smith’s macho defense of the honor of his wife, a move that may have Oscar producers introducing a moat and drawbridge to stage at future telecasts of the event.
Amy Schumer was performing her hosting duties, announcing the honorary Academy Awards given to Samuel L. Jackson and Liv Ullman for their contributions to cinema when she interjected, apparently staying from her teleprompter script, to say:
“And there’s a genocide going on in the Ukraine and women are losing all of their rights,” a smiling Schumer stated, trying to put things in perspective, and then continuing to say “And now welcome last years winner” before rembering to add “…and trans people.”
The Academy Awards — and society— have come a long way from the days when Sacheen Littlefeather was jeered by the Hollywood establishment in attendance. While it’s heartening to see the levels of inclusion now seemingly baked into the Oscar formula, the newly-prominent levels of racism, homophobia, and right-wing extremist intolerance unleashed by the four years that Donald Trump spent in the White House still have to be countered and eliminated.
Let’s hope that the Oscars and the media can continue to help demonstrate the kinds of progressive values that can bring tolerance, inclusion, and equity back to a society that has — in some sectors at least — strayed far from the happy ending that Hollywood loves to see before the final credits.
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