(Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at
Purdue University, is author of "Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in
American Political Life," which explores the use of Hollywood
styles, structures and personalities in U.S. politics over the
20th century. The opinions expressed here are his own.)
By Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Feb 29 With Chris Rock, an acerbic black
comedian, set to host Sunday night's Oscar broadcast in
Hollywood, even as Al Sharpton led a protest outside the Dolby
Theatre and director Spike Lee and actress Jada Pinkett Smith
demanded a boycott of #OscarsSoWhite, viewers expected a potent
mix of entertainment and politics.
They got it.
Protesters argued that the demographics of the Academy of
Motion Picture Arts and Sciences - overwhelmingly white and male
- resulted in the second consecutive year with no acting
nominations for artists of color. The fact that studio
executives, who control many movies, are also largely white
males has been cited as another reason for the racial imbalance,
with Lee arguing that it is easier for a black man to become
president of the United States than head of a studio.
Over the past 50 years, the Academy Awards' program has
offered an opportunity for Hollywood's workers - costume
designers, writers and actors - to use their moment of triumph
to spotlight issues such as U.S. policies in Vietnam and Iraq,
and LGBT equality. Acceptance speeches have gone from short and
sweet to biting and controversial. Sunday night was no
exception, but it was the host, as well as the winners, who
sought to confront political issues head-on.
Why did the 88th Academy Awards stir such protest?
Rock asked and answered this question during his opening
monologue. During the 1960s, he explained, African Americans had
more serious issues to confront: "We had real things to protest
at the time. We were too busy being raped and lynched then to
care about who won best cinematographer."
This answer, however, overlooks Hollywood's key role in the
civil rights movement. Celebrities - including Harry Belafonte,
Sidney Poitier and Sammy Davis Jr. - used their acting skills to
draw attention to injustice, raise much-needed funds for leading
civil-rights organizations and challenge racial stereotypes on
the silver screen.
These "Stars for Freedom" used entertainment as a political
tool to highlight and combat racial violence while developing
the tradition of celebrity activism that was on display Sunday
night, for example, in Rock's stinging satire, Lady Gaga's
anthem against sexual violence and Leonardo DiCaprio's
There has been a long struggle between those who want the
Academy Awards program to entertain and those who use the show
to comment on serious political issues, including Vanessa
Redgrave pleading the cause of Palestinians in 1978 and Susan
Sarandon and Tim Robbins advocating for Haitian refugees held in
Guantanamo Bay in 1993.
But the question has shifted over the past 50 years from
whether Hollywood should address political issues to how they
should address them, which reveals a significant change
surrounding the role of entertainment in political life.
The Academy Award of Merit began in 1929.
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio head Louis B. Mayer, a prominent
California Republican, sought to use the event to curb labor
disputes as well as promote the artistic quality of Hollywood's
motion pictures. In the 1920s, Protestant reformers and Catholic
bishops joined to condemn Hollywood pictures as "low brow" and
to censor increasingly sophisticated movies as "immoral." The
Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, however, sought to
counter this narrative by promoting the artistic achievement of
a cultural form decried by opponents as "vile." The studio
heads also committed to a policy of self-censorship. Named for
its architect, former National Republican Chairman Will H.
Hayes, the Hayes Code directed that movie plots adhere to a list
of moral do's and don'ts.
Over the next 30 years, the annual Academy Awards ceremony
served as a publicity event for movie studios as their
contracted employees ingratiated the industry to the public and
to national political leaders.
Speeches were brief and non-controversial. When the black
actress Hattie McDaniel won the Best Supporting Actress award
for "Gone with the Wind" in 1940, she made her way from a table
in the back of the room, where she was forced to sit apart from
her co-stars because of the hotel's racial segregation policy.
Though she powerfully spoke of striving to be a positive credit
to her "race and the motion picture industry," she and others
were restricted from making controversial political statements
by morality clauses in their contracts that studio executives
used to control their actions.
Especially during the 1940s, speaking out about divisive
issues like civil rights could mean termination of contract, a
fact that 10 Hollywood writers and producers discovered in the
postwar anticommunist environment.
But during the 1960s, Hollywood changed.
New legal and antitrust rulings undercut the power studios
held over their employees' public actions. African American
celebrities, in particular, began to speak out about the
controversial issue of racial equality. Belafonte and Dick
Gregory took to the streets and help fund organizations like
Martin Luther King Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership
Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
Poitier took to the screen and became the first African American
male to win an Oscar with his performance in Lilies of the
Their leadership encouraged other black and white
celebrities to join together in events like the March on
Washington - building on a tradition of political activism in
movement politics on the left that soon extended to the Vietnam
War, environmentalism and Native American rights over the
Economic changes also helped to unleash the liberal and
radical politics that the Cold War's anticommunist environment
suppressed. In 1967, the new president of the Motion Picture
Producers of America, Jack Valenti, introduced a ratings system
that ended "self-censorship." Studios were free to gamble on
inexpensive films that might attract the lucrative youth market
by explicitly denouncing the traditional value system. Actors
and directors emerged as countercultural leaders for their
on-screen productions and off-screen lifestyle choices.
The Academy Awards nights followed suit.
In 1973, Marlon Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather of the
National Native American Affirmative Image Committee to accept
his award for Best Actor in "The Godfather" in support of the
Wounded Knee protests.
Two years later, producer Bert Schneider used his win for
"Hearts and Minds," a graphic documentary critiquing the Vietnam
War, to read a telegram from North Vietnam to celebrate the
"liberation of Vietnam" and give thanks to American anti-Vietnam
War demonstrators for their work in "bringing peace."
That year, host Frank Sinatra read a disclaimer that
apologized for politics seeping into the evening's events. Three
years later, the writer Paddy Chayefsky rebuked entertainers'
exploitation of "the Academy Awards for the propagation of their
own personal propaganda" as the trend continued.
Yet, the Academy Awards show has continued as an evening of
political possibilities, the one night when millions of viewers
in America and worldwide tune in to celebrate Hollywood's
achievements and, perhaps, see how winners will use their two-
or three-minute acceptance speeches to highjack the limelight
and promote a topic more significant than acting abilities.
However, despite the gains that celebrities have made in
publicizing progressive issues over the past 50 years - civil
rights, environmentalism and fighting AIDS - involvement with
issue politics outside Hollywood grew at the expense of creating
real equal opportunity within the industry. Hollywood, Rock
said, is "sorority racist. It's like: 'We like you, Rhonda, but
you're not a Kappa!'"
Sunday night's show aroused emotions, confronted anger and
called celebrities and audiences to political action. Vice
President Joe Biden joined with Lady Gaga to ask viewers to take
a pledge against sexual violence on college campuses and "change
the culture." DiCaprio issued a passionate appeal to combat
global warming. "Spotlight's" win for Best Picture became a
celebration of the pressing need for investigative journalism.
Each of these political moments combined on-screen performances
advocating for the underrepresented with calls for action off
As the Black Lives Matter movement gains momentum, the
Academy Awards became an opportunity for the global movie
industry to reflect on how it, too, needs to grapple with the
pressing question of inclusion and diversity - and confront the
reality of racism in an industry that has become known for its
Following a morning when the leading Republican presidential
candidate avoided directly disavowing support from the Ku Klux
Klan, Sunday night's Oscar's provided a resonant liberal
counterpart to Donald Trump's brand of political entertainment
by generating a deeper conversation about race.
As the excitement of the Oscars gives way to the drama of
Super Tuesday, the reality of this change may depend on which
side can translate entertainment into action.
(Kathryn Cramer Brownell)