The Case For Politics at the Oscars

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The question of exactly how political things are going to get at the Academy Awards ceremony is a controversy just about every year, even prior to the election of a president who, aside from his various personal and political views, has a history of publicly feuding with multiple prominent actors and actresses. And that’s even before you take into account #OscarsSoWhite and various political controversies attached to particular films.

Many observers, including Screen Rant's own Paul Young, have argued that it’s time for the Oscars to be de-politicized. Let the big night be an escape from the outside world, and a coming together for all of us during a particularly contentious time in American life.

Yet political speechmaking and grandstanding at the Oscars is a long and beautiful tradition, and there’s no reason for it not to continue, especially now. For one, it’s dishonest to treat movies and politics as necessarily separate when that’s not the way it works in the real world - especially this year, when many films have clear political resonance.  The Trump era, whatever you may think of it, is a fact of life, and to let it go unremarked upon would be ignoring the elephant in the room. Controversial political moments at the Oscars have a tendency to be memorable, and to break up long and uneventful ceremonies. And finally, those who win Oscars have arguably earned the right to say whatever they like as they accept.

Sacheen Littlefeather Oscars

It’s often argued that the movies should be an “escape” from the pressures and controversies of the real world. A similar, parallel debate is presently underway in the world of sports - over whether or not the games, and media coverage of them, should steer clear of politics. When it comes to the escape question, there’s a big difference between “should be” and “is.” The fact is, the movies are political. The political content of a movie, or lack thereof, matters, in every aspect from the process of getting movies greenlit to its critical reception to what does and doesn’t get nominated. Politics influences which stories are told, why and how they’re told, and who gets to tell them.

Another common argument is that people at the Oscars who get political are somehow defiling some tradition of the Awards being sacrosanct, and to be about movies and nothing else. But that’s not true either- political grandstanding from the Oscar stage has happened for decades.

There was Marlon Brando sending out American Indian activist Sacheen Littlefeather (pictured above) to refuse his Oscar for The Godfather, in 1973. Vanessa Redgrave, also in the ‘70s, denounced “Zionist hoodlums” from the stage. The ‘80s and ‘90s were full of statements from the Oscar stage about the AIDS crisis, and Kim Basinger in 1990 denounced the snubbing of Do the Right Thing for a Best Picture nomination. The early 2000s, seemingly annually, were marked by various shots at George W. Bush and the Iraq War, including Michael Moore’s famed “fictitious times” speech in 2003.  Two years ago, Patricia Arquette used her Oscar speech to push for wage equality for women.

Were they all right? Did they all make their points cogently and in the best way they could? Certainly not. But all of these events have something in common: they’re all memorable - even entertaining. Sure, all of those people could have kept their mouths shut instead, but then their speeches would have just blended into mostly uneventful ceremonies - which sometimes approach the four-hour mark .

Touching on current events during awards ceremonies can offer comfort and consolation in the wake of tragedy. Last year’s Tony Awards were held less than 24 hours after the Pulse nightclub massacre in Orlando — and both the intro by host James Corden and numerous speeches throughout the night were dedicated to the victims and to the principles of equality and love for others, especially those in the LGBT community. Apolitical it was not, but it would have been wrong to do it any other way.

Another reason to expect and accept the presence of politics at this year’s Oscars is simply the facts on the ground: even the biggest celebrities in the film industry rarely get the opportunity to speak to an audience as large as the Academy Awards viewership, so it's perhaps inevitable that they use that platform to promote issues close to their heart. When Leonardo DiCaprio finally won an Oscar last year for The Revenant, he hastened to turn the topic of his speech to the environment, and there were plenty of jokes bandied about regarding the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

Meryl Streep Golden Globes speech

At the same time, films with clear political resonance in these times, from Moonlight to Hidden Figures to Fences to even Hell or High Water, are vying for awards. It has also been argued that La La Land and Manchester by the Sea’s lack of political stances are, themselves, a political stance.

But why shouldn’t actors, directors or other winners get a chance to say what they want, once they’ve won their Oscar? Haven’t they earned that right? Who’s to stop them from saying what they want, besides the orchestra conductor? Look, for instance, at the Best Documentary Feature category. If director Raoul Peck wins for I Am Not Your Negro, or Ava DuVernay for 13th or Ezra Edelman for OJ: Made in America, should they be expected to give acceptance speeches that are apolitical? Doing so, considering the subject matter of their films, would almost be dishonest.

Why should Mahershala Ali, who may very well become the first Muslim to ever win an acting Oscar, be pressured not to mention that fact, and not tie it to certain policies of the current presidential administration? Why shouldn’t Ali or Viola Davis remark upon the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, if they win? And if Mel Gibson wins Best Director for Hacksaw Ridge, why shouldn’t he deliver his own political talking points from the stage, or even have something to say about those who exiled him from starring roles for the past decade?

Manchester By The Sea Moonlight

Those who denounce “out of touch Hollywood elites” will likely describe Hollywood that way no matter what they do or say. When Michelle Obama presented the Best Picture Oscar in 2013, it drew howls from some corners, even though the then-First Lady delivered a generally innocuous and uncontroversial message about pursuing creativity and following your dreams.

Unless the producers of the Oscars institute some form of ban on political speech at the ceremony — and there’s no indication that such a thing has ever been considered — the politics will likely stay, as they have for decades and decades. So we know that this year’s ceremony will include political moments, and we know that they’ll likely lead to recriminations from left and right. And the morning after, we can probably expect some derisive tweets from a certain cranky movie critic in the White House.

Next: Why Hollywood Should Ignore Politics During the Academy Awards

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