The Political Battleground of the 2015 Academy Awards

In 1978, Vanessa Redgrave won the Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the film Julia, about a woman who is murdered by the Nazis for her anti-fascist activism. That same year, Redgrave also produced and narrated a documentary called The Palestinian about the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO). In protest of her nomination, the Jewish Defense League picketed the Academy Awards and burned effigies of the actress. When Redgrave took the stage to accept her Oscar, she used the opportunity to take a political stand.

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She thanked her co-star Jane Fonda and Julia‘s director Fred Zinnemann, and then went on to express gratitude to the millions who sacrificed in the struggle against fascism and the Nazis. Redgrave then thanked the Academy for resisting intimidation from “Zionist hoodlums whose behavior is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.” But she didn’t stop there. She continued, “I salute all of you for having stood firm and dealt a final blow against that period when [Richard] Nixon and [Joseph] McCarthy launched a worldwide witch-hunt against those who tried to express in their lives and their work the truth that they believe in. I salute you and I thank you and I pledge to you that I will continue to fight against antisemitism and fascism.”

Two hours later during that Academy Awards ceremony in 1978, Paddy Chayefsky took the stage to present the awards for Best Writing, and he fired back at Redgrave, “I would like to say, personal opinion, of course, that I’m sick and tired of people exploiting the occasion of the Academy Awards for the propagation of their own personal political propaganda. I would like to suggest to Miss Redgrave that her winning an Academy Award is not a pivotal moment in history, does not require a proclamation, and a simple ‘thank you’ would have sufficed.”

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The Oscars in 1978 provided a clear example of how conflicting political attitudes and ideologies compete on stage in front of millions. Under the surface, the Academy Awards always reflect the prevailing politics of Hollywood at a given moment in time, but sometimes these ideological struggles bubble over for all to see when participants in the ceremony seize the opportunity to speak out, or to condemn those who do.

Like the Oscars in 1978, last night’s 87th Academy Awards were also defined by politics, starting long before the ceremony even took place. Immediately following the announcement of the nominees on January 15th, a Twitter hashtag was created (#OscarsSoWhite) to mock and protest the Academy for failing to consider a single non-white actor or actress in any of the four acting categories. All 20 nominees were white for the first time since 1995. Many were also outraged that Ava DuVernay, the black, female director of Selma was also not nominated in the Best Director category. After the diverse Oscar ceremony from the previous year, it was clear the Academy was taking a step backwards, and controversy swirled leading up to the Awards, amplified by the context of recent events in Ferguson, MO and the social awakening in the wake of a rash of cases of police brutality.

When the Academy Awards broadcast began last night, race was an obvious elephant in the room. In an apparent attempt to compensate for the lack of black nominees, host Neil Patrick Harris conspicuously incorporated black people into the show, as if to say, “See, we’re not racist!” He enlisted Oscar winner Octavia Spencer to participate in a gag that ran throughout the broadcast, and she was also an award presenter. Harris also interviewed David Oyelowo from his seat in the crowd, and later on, when Oyelowo and Jennifer Aniston appeared on stage to present an award, Harris announced them as people “who absolutely deserve to be here,” in a not so subtle reference to their snubs by Oscar.

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But despite a drastically less diverse field of nominees this year, several of the winners rose to the occasion and spoke out on relevant and important progressive political issues, just like Vanessa Redgrave did in 1978. Patricia Arquette made the first bold statement of the night. On the issue of women’s equality she said, “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America,” she demanded from the stage, which got the audience fired up. Most notably, Meryl Streep jumped out of her seat, cheering and pointing at the stage in approval. Arquette won Best Supporting Actress for the film Boyhood, which depicts a single-mother struggling to raise two children over the course of 12 years, while suffering from a pattern of domestic abuse and financial difficulties.

The ceremony was also marked by a pointed political conflict in the style of Redgrave and Chayefsky, with a progressive speaking out on an issue, followed by the voice of the establishment responding. Laura Poitras’ Citizenfour won for Best Documentary Feature, a film about how she and Glenn Greenwald worked with Edward Snowden when he came forward to leak classified documents about the NSA spying program. During her acceptance speech she said, “The disclosures that Edward Snowden reveals don’t only expose a threat to our privacy, but to our democracy itself. When the most important decisions being made that affect all of us are being made in secrecy, we lose our ability to check the powers in control. Thank you to Edward Snowden for his courage, and for the many other whistle-blowers. I share this with Glenn Greenwald and the other journalists who are exposing truth. Thank you.”

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Immediately following Poitras’ speech, cameras cut back to host Neil Patrick Harris, who right before a commercial break said, “The subject of Citizenfour couldn’t be here for some treason.” The pun was not funny and the crowd did not laugh. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room, perceptible even on TV, for a few moments before ABC faded out for commercials. The “joke” was reprehensible, especially after the meaningful speech by Poitras to raise awareness about the crimes of the government and the vital importance of both whistle-blowers and independent journalists. Even if Harris’ rebuttal was simply a poor attempt to improvise a joke while under the enormous pressure of live TV being watched by millions (which is giving him a tremendous benefit of the doubt), there can be no doubt that what he did, in a single sentence, was defend the establishment and mock the bravery of people like Edward Snowden while endangering future whistle-blowers by publicly floating the idea that what they’re doing amounts to treason, which is one of the most serious charges that one can have leveled against them.

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Later on, Graham Moore took the stage to accept the Best Adapted Screenplay award for The Imitation Game, about Alan Turing, a gay man who helped develop methods to crack Nazi codes during World War 2. Turing was later prosecuted for “Homosexual Acts” which were illegal in the UK at the time. He was chemically castrated, and not long afterward in what was a possible suicide Turing died from cyanide poisoning. Graham Moore used his moment in the spotlight as an opportunity to speak about those who are made to feel different in society being driven to suicide. “I tried to commit suicide at 16 and now I’m standing here. I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn’t fit in anywhere. 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 along.”

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However, given the controversy surrounding the all white slate of acting nominees, perhaps the most cathartic moment of the night came during the performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common, the nominated song from Selma. The crowd was flooded by an emotional release in which many in attendance were reduced to tears, culminating in a standing ovation. Shortly following the performance, “Glory” won the award for Best Original Song. During his acceptance speech Legend said, “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now! Because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the voting rights that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised in this country today.” He continued, “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men under correctional control today than were in slavery in 1850.”

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Of course the ceremony also had its negative moments, such as when Sean Penn yelled “Who gave this SOB his green card?” before announcing Alejandro G. Iñárritu the winner of the Best Director award, but at least in that instance Iñárritu had the opportunity to get the last word, using his time on stage to shine a light on immigration policy. First, in direct response to Penn’s “joke”, Iñárritu said, “Maybe next year the government will inflict some immigration rules to the Academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that’s suspicious, I guess.” He was referring to Alfonso Cuarón winning Best Director the year before for Gravity. He then concluded by saying, “Finally, I just want to, I want to take one second, I just want to take the opportunity, I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and build this incredible immigrant nation. Thank you very much.”

The 87th Academy Awards will be remembered for the way winner after winner used the stage to bravely take a progressive stand on one of many important political issues. There will likely be detractors who come forward to denounce this type of acceptance speech activism. They’ll say things like Paddy Chayefsky said in 1978, the essence of which is that people shouldn’t “abuse the platform” to drag whatever their “pet political cause” may be into the spotlight; that they shouldn’t “bring politics into it.” But when detractors make arguments like this, what they’re really saying is that they don’t want progressive politics brought up, because of course the dominant ideology in this society is the reactionary default of the ruling elite class, and that default isn’t considered “political” by the same standard. So, given this, that’s actually all the more reason why it’s important for progressive people to step forward and make their voices heard, both through their art, as well as on stage at the Academy Awards.

Russell Brand at the 2013 GQ Men of the Year Awards

This is Russell Brand’s acceptance speech from the 2013 GQ Men of the Year Awards in which he mocks the sponsor Hugo Boss. After these events unfolded Brand wrote an insightful Op-Ed for The Guardian about the evening (posted below).

 

Russell Brand and the GQ awards: ‘It’s amazing how absurd it seems’

Reprinted from The Guardian
by Russell Brand | September 13, 2013 | The Guardian

I have had the privilege of scuba diving. I did it once on holiday, and I’m aware that it’s one of those subjects that people can get pretty boring and sincere about, and sincerity, for we British, is no state in which to dwell, so I’ll be brief. The scuba dive itself was nuministic enough, a drenched heaven; coastal shelves and their staggering, sub-aquatic architecture, like spilt cathedrals, gormless, ghostly fish gliding by like Jackson Pollock’s pets. Silent miracles. What got me, though, was when I came up for air, at the end. As my head came above water after even a paltry 15 minutes in Davy Jones’s Locker, there was something absurd about the surface. How we, the creatures of the land, live our lives, obliviously trundling, flat feet slapping against the dust.

It must have been a while since I’ve attended a fancy, glitzy event, because as soon as I got to the GQ awards I felt like something was up. The usual visual grammar was in place – a carpet in the street, people in paddocks awaiting a brush with something glamorous, blokes with earpieces, birds in frocks of colliding colours that if sighted in nature would indicate the presence of poison. I’m not trying to pass myself off as some kind of Francis of Assisi, Yusuf Islam, man of the people, but I just wasn’t feeling it. I ambled into the Opera House across yet more outdoor carpets, boards bearing branding, in this case Hugo Boss, past paparazzi, and began to queue up at the line of journalists and presenters, in a slightly nicer paddock who offer up mics and say stuff like:

“Who are you wearing?”

“I’m not wearing anyone. I went with clobber, I’m not Buffalo Bill.”

Noel Gallagher was immediately ahead of me in the press line and he’s actually a mate. I mean, I love him: sometimes I forget he wrote Supersonic and played to 400,000 people at Knebworth because he’s such a laugh. He laid right into me, the usual gear: “What the fook you wearing? Does Rod Stewart know you’re going through his jumble?” I try to remain composed and give as good as I get, even though the paddock-side banter is accompanied by looming foam-tipped eavesdroppers, hanging like insidious mistletoe.

In case you don’t know, these parties aren’t like real parties. It’s fabricated fun, imposed from the outside. A vision of what squares imagine cool people might do set on a spaceship. Or in Moloko. As we come out of the lift there’s a bloody great long corridor flanked by gorgeous birds in black dresses, paid to be there, motionless, left hand on hip, teeth tacked to lips with scarlet glue. The intention, I suppose, is to contrive some Ian Fleming super-uterus of well fit mannequins to midwife you into the shindig, but me and my mate Matt just felt self-conscious, jigging through Robert Palmer’s oestrogen passage like aspirational Morris dancers. Matt stared at their necks and I made small talk as I hot stepped towards the pre-show drinks. Now, I’m not typically immune to the allure of objectified women, but I am presently beleaguered by a nerdish, whirling dervish, and am eschewing all others. Perhaps the clarity of this elation has awakened me. A friend of mine said: “Being in love is like discovering a concealed ballroom in a house you’ve long inhabited.” I also don’t drink, so these affairs where most people rinse away their Britishness and twitishness with booze are for me a face-first log flume of backslaps, chitchat, eyewash and gak.

After a load of photos and what-not, we descend the world’s longest escalator, which are called that even as they de-escalate, and in we go to the main forum, a high ceilinged hall, full of circular cloth-draped, numbered tables, a stage at the front, the letters GQ, 12-foot high in neon at the back; this aside, though, neon forever the moniker of trash, this is a posh do, in an opera house full of folk in tuxes.

Everywhere you look there’s someone off the telly; Stephen Fry, Pharrell, Sir Bobby Charlton, Samuel L Jackson, Rio Ferdinand, Justin Timberlake, foreign secretary William Hague and mayor of London Boris Johnson. My table is a sanctuary of sorts; Noel and his missus Sara, John Bishop and his wife Mel, my mates Matt Morgan, Mick and Gee. Noel and I are both there to get awards and decide to use our speeches to dig each other out. This makes me feel a little grounded in the unreal glare, normal.

Noel’s award is for being an “icon” and mine for being an “oracle”. My knowledge of the classics is limited, but includes awareness that an oracle is a spiritual medium through whom prophecies from the gods were sought in ancient Greece. Thankfully, I have a sense of humour that prevents me from taking accolades of that nature on face value, or I’d’ve been in the tricky position of receiving the GQ award for being “best portal to a mystical dimension”, which is a lot of pressure. Me, Matt and Noel conclude it’s probably best to treat the whole event as a bit of a laugh and, as if to confirm this as the correct attitude, Boris Johnson – a man perpetually in pyjamas regardless of what he’s wearing – bounds to the stage to accept the award for “best politician”. Yes, we agree: this is definitely a joke.

Boris, it seems, is taking it in this spirit, joshing beneath his ever-redeeming barnet that Labour’s opposition to military action in Syria is a fey stance that he, as GQ politician of the year, would never be guilty of.

Matt is momentarily focused. “He’s making light of gassed Syrian children,” he says. We watch, slightly aghast, then return to goading Noel.

Before long, John Bishop is on stage giving me a lovely introduction, so I get up as Noel hurls down a few gauntlets, daring me to “do my worst”.

I thanked John, said the “oracle award” sounds like a made-up prize you’d give a fat kid on sports day – I should know, I used to get them – then that it’s barmy that Hugo Boss can trade under the same name they flogged uniforms to the Nazis under and the ludicrous necessity for an event such as this one to banish such a lurid piece of information from our collective consciousness.

I could see the room dividing as I spoke. I could hear the laughter of some and louder still silence of others. I realized that for some people this was regarded as an event with import. The magazine, the sponsors and some of those in attendance saw it as a kind of ceremony that warranted respect. In effect, it is a corporate ritual, an alliance between a media organisation, GQ, and a commercial entity, Hugo Boss. What dawned on me as the night went on is that even in apparently frivolous conditions the establishment asserts control, and won’t tolerate having that assertion challenged, even flippantly, by that most beautifully adept tool: comedy.

The jokes about Hugo Boss were not intended to herald a campaign to destroy them. They’re not Monsanto or Halliburton, the contemporary corporate allies of modern-day fascism; they are, I thought, an irrelevant menswear supplier with a double-dodgy history. The evening, though, provided an interesting opportunity to see how power structures preserve their agenda, even in a chintzy microcosm.

Subsequent to my jokes, the evening took a peculiar turn. Like the illusion of sophistication had been inadvertently disrupted by the exposure. It had the vibe of a wedding dinner where the best man’s speech had revealed the groom’s infidelity. With Hitler.

Foreign secretary William Hague gave an award to former Telegraph editor Charles Moore, for writing a hagiography of Margaret Thatcher, who used his acceptance speech to build a precarious connection between my comments about the sponsors, my foolish answerphone scandal at the BBC and the Sachs family’s flight, 70 years earlier, from Nazi-occupied Europe. It was a confusing tapestry that Moore spun but he seemed to be saying that a) the calls were as bad as the Holocaust and b) the Sachs family may not’ve sought refuge in Britain had they known what awaited them. Even for a man whose former job was editing the Telegraph this is an extraordinary way to manipulate information.

Noel, who is not one to sit quietly on his feelings, literally booed while Charles Moore was talking, and others joined in. Booing! When do you hear booing in this day and age other than pantomimes and parliament? Hague and Johnson are equally at home in either (Widow Twanky and Buttons, obviously) so were not unduly ruffled, but I thought it was nuts. The room by now had a distinct feel of “us and them” and if there is a line drawn in the sand I don’t ever want to find myself on the same side as Hague and Johnson. Up went Noel to garner his gong and he did not disappoint: “Always nice to be invited to the Tory party conference,” he began, “Good to see the foreign secretary present when there’s shit kicking off in Syria.”

Noel once expressed his disgust at seeing a politician at Glastonbury. “What are you doing here? This ain’t for you,” he’d said. He explained to me: “You used to know where you were with politicians in the 70s and 80s cos they all looked like nutters: Thatcher, Heseltine, Cyril Smith. Now they look normal, they’re more dangerous.” Then, with dreadful foreboding: “They move among us.” I agree with Noel. What are politicians doing at Glastonbury and the GQ awards? I feel guilty going, and I’m a comedian. Why are public officials, paid by us, turning up at events for fashion magazines? Well, the reason I was there was because I have a tour on and I was advised it would be good publicity. What are the politicians selling? How are they managing our perception of them with their attendance of these sequin-encrusted corporate balls?

We witness that there is a relationship between government, media and industry that is evident even at this most spurious and superficial level. These three institutions support one another. We know that however cool a media outlet may purport to be, their primary loyalty is to their corporate backers. We know also that you cannot criticize the corporate backers openly without censorship and subsequent manipulation of this information.

Now I’m aware that this was really no big deal; I’m not saying I’m an estuary Che Guevara. It was a daft joke by a daft comic at a daft event. It makes me wonder, though, how the relationships and power dynamics I witnessed on this relatively inconsequential context are replicated on a more significant scale.

For example, if you can’t criticize Hugo Boss at the GQ awards because they own the event, do you think it is significant that energy companies donate to the Tory party? Will that affect government policy? Will the relationships that “politician of the year” Boris Johnson has with City bankers – he took many more meetings with them than public servants in his first term as mayor – influence the way he runs our capital?

Is it any wonder that Amazon, Vodafone and Starbucks avoid paying tax when they enjoy such cozy relationships with members of our government?

Ought we be concerned that our rights to protest are being continually eroded under the guise of enhancing our safety? Is there a relationship between proposed fracking in the UK, new laws that prohibit protest and the relationships between energy companies and our government?

I don’t know. I do have some good principles picked up that night that are generally applicable: the glamour and the glitz isn’t real, the party isn’t real, you have a much better time mucking around trying to make your mates laugh. I suppose that’s obvious. We all know it, we already know all the important stuff, like: don’t trust politicians, don’t trust big business and don’t trust the media. Trust your own heart and each other. When you take a breath and look away from the spectacle it’s amazing how absurd it seems when you look back.