COLUMN-How the Oscars' social activism took on Hollywood

(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.)

Feb 29 (Reuters) - 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 environmental advocacy.

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 Field.

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 following decades.

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 screen.

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 liberal politics.

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)