In New Gilded Age, Social Protest dominates Academy Awards Ceremony

By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) –

If social and economic inequality were a mine, and if America were deep in this mine with a canary in tow, the canary would long since have expired. Some 400 billionaires have more wealth than the bottom half of Americans. We lived through a year of dramatic incidents underscoring the continued second-class citizenship of African-Americans. Women still don’t make as much for the same work as their male counterparts and their right to choice and control over their own bodies has been de facto curtailed by theocratic state legislatures. Gay people still face prejudice and resistance to same sex marriage rights.

The committed artists honored at the 87th Academy Awards took advantage of their bully pulpits to make an amazing series of eloquent statements on behalf of minorities and the discriminated-against. Referring to the controversy over the all-white nominees in acting categories, host Neil Patrick Harris quipped at the opening, ““Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest — I mean brightest.” For all this hoopla about the overwhelmingly white, elderly and male character of the Academy voting members, however, the stage they provided to honorees was the scene of many poignant pleas for equality and decency.

Graham Moore won for his screenplay for “Imitation Game” (the story of how Alan Turing broke the Nazis’ communication code during World War II, saving countless Allied lives). Turing was later arrested for being gay and sentenced to two years of hormone treatment, which probably led to his suicide. Moore in his acceptance speech spoke of having been treated as the weird kid when young, and revealed that he had tried to commit suicide at age 16. He said:

“Here’s the thing. Alan Turing never got to stand on a stage like this and look out at all of these disconcertingly attractive faces. I do! And that’s the most unfair thing I’ve ever heard. So in this brief time here, what I wanted to do was say this: When I was 16 years old, I tried to kill myself because I felt weird and I felt different , and I felt like I did not belong. And now I’m standing here… and so I would like this moment to be for this kid out there who feels like she’s weird or she’s different or she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Yes, you do. I promise you do. Stay weird, stay different and then, when it’s your turn, and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message to the next person who comes along. Thank you so much!”

John Legend and Common performed “Glory” from the film “Selma,” bringing tears to eyes and provoking a standing ovation from the attendees. The song won an Oscar.

John Legend & Common performance Glory – Oscars 2015

Afterwards Legend said,

“We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country . . . We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justice is real,” he said. “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.”

Referring to the Edmund Pettus Bridge where King and his followers were confronted by Selma police, Mr. Legend remarked,

“This bridge was once a landmark of a divided nation but now is the symbol for change. The spirit of this bridge transcends race, gender, religion, sexual orientation and social status.”

Patricia Arquette, who won “Best supporting actress” for her role in “Boyhood,” spoke up for gender equality:

“To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: We have fought for everybody else’s equal rights. It’s our time to have wage equality once for all. And equal rights for women in the United States of America.”

Likely, Arquette’s complaint referred in part to new revelations about unequal remuneration in her own industry. The hackers who attacked Sony Pictures last summer over the film, “The Interview,” leaked correspondence that male stars getting better pay than their female co-stars across the board. Charlize Theron, on finding out that she was to be paid substantially less than male co-star Chris Hemsworth for “Huntsman,” demanded and got a $10 million raise.

Alejandro González Iñárritu won for best director for “Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance),” and the film won “Best Picture.”

At the end of his acceptance speech for “Best Director,” he briefly shouted out to “mi compatriotes mexicanos”– my Mexican compatriots. It wasn’t clear whether he meant all his fellow Mexicans, or he was playfully referring to his dear friends in Hollywood, Alfonso Cuaron and Guillermo del Toro.

But when “Birdman” won for best film, introducer Sean Penn attempted a joke: “Who gave all these Mexicans green cards?” The reference was that it was the second year in a row that a Mexican-American won for best director. The jest was poorly received on Twitter, though no one thinks it was meant in a negative way.

In his acceptance speech for best film, Iñárritu said he hoped Mexicans would “find and build a government that we deserve.” Mexico has been roiled in the past year by the disappearance of dozens of students and indications that they were murdered by police at the behest of drug smugglers, pointing to a web of governmental corruption that has finally become a matter of public discussion after being whispered for years.

Of his fellow Mexican-Americans he said, “I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible, immigrant nation.”

The LA Times notes, “His speech prompted an outpouring of praise and pride for Mexico, with the hashtag #VivaMexico and Iñárritu trending on social media.”

Eddie Redmayne won best actor for “The Theory of Everything,” a biopic about astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, who suffers from Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease). In his acceptance speech he spoke up for the ALS community.

Along with all these pleas for social justice and respectful treatment of women, African-Americans, Mexican-Americans, gays and the differently abled, one award provided the opportunity for awardees to speak up for us all. Laura Poitras won best documentary for “Citizenfour,” her film about Edward Snowden and his leaks. Poitras was joined on the stage by reporter Glenn Greenwald, who also played a central role in blowing the whistle on unconstitutional spying on Americans by the National Security Agency.

Poitras said in her acceptance speech,

“The disclosures that Edward Snowden revealed don’t only expose a threat to our privacy but to our democracy itself. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage and for the many other whistleblowers.” Snowden, in a statement released after the award was announced, said, “My hope is that this award will encourage more people to see the film and be inspired by its message that ordinary citizens, working together, can change the world.”

All Americans suffer when the government disregards the Fourth Amendment and violates our right to the privacy of our papers and effects. We have no idea how this information is being used, and there is reason to fear that it is being used in sinister ways. Even Orwell’s Big Brother was not as efficient at domestic surveillance as today’s NSA. In the absence of privacy, democracy cannot flourish. Most public people have secrets and can be blackmailed by security agencies to fall silent on key issues. Privacy is the cornerstone of individual dignity. It has been stolen from us by a government out of control.

There you have it, the most politically progressive Oscars ever, provoked by the sacrifices of Ferguson and many other such instances of racial injustice and by discrimination against a wide range of groups in US society. Artists do not have the levers of power the way politicians do, but they can influence public opinion. It takes courage for a performer to take a stand (there is a danger of losing half of one’s fans in an evening). We saw a lot of courage and a lot of high ethics last night. The ceremonies began with a musical duel between Neil Patrick Harris and Jack Black over the good Hollywood of art and ideals and the bad Hollywood of back room deals and backstabbing. The good Hollywood won last night.

14 Responses

  1. Thank you as well, Juan, for your commitment.
    “Privacy is the cornerstone of individual dignity. It has been stolen from us by a government out of control.”

  2. But of course no statements on the closure of Guantanamo Bay or the recent execution of 3 North Carolina students. Social justice only when it is palatable.

  3. Typo in second paragraph: the name is not Neil Patrick Hayden, but Harris.
    You got it right in the last paragraph.

  4. It’s interesting, Professor, that you would mention Charlize Theron, because I had already associated her with the very next item that you covered, the wise crack that Sean Penn made just before presenting Inarritu with the Oscar for Best Picture. Earlier this morning, Google News, which leans conservative, had shown a series of tweets and what-not in which Penn is roundly lambasted for — in place of the more polite way you put it — allegedly having said instead, “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” He was attacked for having supposedly thrown dirt on Mexicans and the whole immigrant question.

    However, several things tell me beyond all doubt that nothing could’ve been farther from Penn’s mind. One is that he had already worked with Inarritu on another film a few years ago, and therefore this had to be just a private joke that they may have shared as much as a half dozen times in the past. Therefore the rest of the world was actually lucky that Penn chose to bring it into the joke, and in fact Penn most likely was just as happy as he could be to present his friend with this honor. Another factor is that Sean Penn was just being Sean Penn. Anybody who has noticed this actor even desultorily over the years will know just what I mean. But the clincher is that Penn just recently had the great, good luck of having talked one of the most choice, accomplished, and interesting women in the film world, the said Ms Charlize Theron, into being his wife. Sean Penn, who isn’t exactly a lady’s man, cannot have come down, yet, from the euphoria of such an achievement, and therefore he can be forgiven for just about everything.

  5. Artists do not have the levers of power the way politicians do, but they can influence public opinion.

    But among the Oscars audience it was probably only a very small proportion that appreciated those progressive and forthright remarks. If I were to bet I would put my money on the vast majority of viewers being couch potatoes over whose heads those statements passed with little to no impact.

  6. But Henry A. Giroux is very critical of three movies featured at the Oscars: Hollywood Heroism: From ‘Citizenfour’ and ‘Selma’ to ‘American Sniper’ By Henry A. Giroux, Truthout – link to

  7. I thought Penn’s line – I think it was ‘Who gave this SOB a green card?’ was very funny – we all laughed – it was a tongue in cheek way to reminded us, and I am sure a lot of people who didn’t know, that the winner of the top prize was a Mexican immigrant – there are a lot of people out in TV land who need reminding of the contributions to our culture of Mexican immigrants

  8. American Sniper is the highest grossing war movie in history. The average American just loved the movie, but it got snubbed by the Academy because the wind in Hollywood wasn’t blowing in that direction this year. So, the artists and their individual causes were able to dominate the awards.

    However, if war with ISIS, Iran, or Russia really kicks in, movies like The Hurt Locker (2009) will dominate once again. Hollywood gets backed by the government and they make big money on war propaganda flicks. If a big war had been going on, American Sniper would won like Hurt Locker.

  9. What a shame that the social protest spirit didn’t extend to keeping blood diamonds off the Red Carpet. Reports indicate that some of the participants wore diamonds valued at $millions. Rees Witherspoon – $3 million of Tiffany bling, Dakota Johnson $2.2ml of Forevermark, Nicole Kidman – $7ml of Harry Winston stones to mention just a few.
    Fifty percent of the diamonds sold in the US come from Israel where the industry generates $1 billion per year in revenue for the Israeli military which stands accused of war crimes by the UNHRC, AI and HRW. Considering that over 2000 people, including over 500 children, were were killed during the Israeli assault on Gaza last Summer it’s high time that the trade in cut and polished diamonds was subjected to the same human rights standards applied to rough diamonds under the Kimberley Process regulations. Diamonds that fund war crimes may not be “conflict diamonds” but they certainly are blood diamonds.

  10. This uproar about Senn Penn reveals one of three things:
    1) He blew his dilivery by pausing too long after he opened the envelope
    2) “political correctness’ leaves no room for humor, discretion, irony or even thinking in many American minds. Most people culturally aware enough to blog criticism of Penn should know that Penn was being sarcastic and are straightjacketed by their own self-righteousness.

    • When Sean Penn made his remark it struck me as the kind of joshing remark friends make with each other, something similar to blacks using the n-word to each other on certain occasions. When Alejandro G. Inarritu accepted the Oscar on the stage he and Penn appeared to be (still) good friends.

  11. It’s too bad Hollywood couldn’t muster any courage in response to the Sony hack, a huge invasion of privacy and a successful act of cyberterrorism.

  12. Yes actors speaking out in support for women’s issues, LGBT, immigrants, civil rights etc. To think how Vanessa Redgrave was practically run out of Hollywood for speaking up ever so politely at the 1976 Oscars for Palestinian rights. Still Meryl Streep and the rest of the alleged Hollywood human rights types will not stand up on this critical issue. Still to sheepish.

    Great to see Greenwald and Poitrus accepting an award for best documentary “Citizenfour”

    Guardian, Huff Po Daily Beast all have pieces up about Bibi Bombing on Iran issue with Mossad.

  13. Bibi’s bs on Iran is contradicted by a Mossad intelligence cable which reads as follows: “Even though Iran has accumulated enough 5% enriched uranium for several bombs and has enriched some of it to 20%, it does NOT appear to be ready to enrich it to higher levels.”

    Iran isn’t even trying to build a nuclear weapon.

    Next Tuesday, Netanyahu speaks to his children in Congress, so it will be VERY interesting to hear how the media reports on his war mongering and if they let the public know the Iranian nuke story is playing out like Saddam’s WMD.

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