A brief history of Oscar protests

It’s about more than red carpets and designer dresses. Image: REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Stéphanie Thomson, Editor, World Economic Forum


Protests, heightened ideological divides, a spike in hate crime: 2017 has got off to a rocky start, and many people are looking for a way to switch off from it all, if only for a few hours.

If you’re one of those people, perhaps you’re planning on tuning in to the Oscars this week. After all, what better form of escape than watching Hollywood A-listers swan down a red carpet as we ooh and ahh at their designer gowns?

A word of warning: you might be disappointed. While on the surface the Oscars are all about glamour and entertainment, artists have for decades used the ceremony as a platform for protest. Here are five of the most memorable.

Marlon Brando stands up for Native American rights

The Godfather’s Don Corleone is one of the most iconic film characters of all time, so it came as no surprise when the man who portrayed him, Hollywood legend Marlon Brando, won the best actor Oscar in 1972.

What did surprise many, though, was his decision to turn down the award and boycott the ceremonies.

Instead, he asked a young Native American actress to make a speech on his behalf, explaining his decision.

“He very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award” because of the “treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” Sacheen Littlefeather told a visibly shocked audience.

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins speak up for HIV-infected refugees

Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins are as famous for their outspoken political views as they are for their award-winning performances.

So when they were asked to present the award for best editing, they accepted — and used the opportunity to speak out against a US government policy.

“We’d like to call attention to the 266 Haitians who are being held in Guantanamo Bay by the US government. Their crime? Testing positive to the HIV virus,” they told the audience, before calling on American authorities to allow the refugees into the country.

Richard Gere highlights Tibet’s plight

He might be better known for his role in films like Pretty Woman and Chicago, but Richard Gere is also a human rights activist and practicing Buddhist.

Which is why when he took to the stage at the 1993 Oscars, he sent a personal message to Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, urging him to “take his troops and take the Chinese away from Tibet, and allow people to live as free independent people again”.

Michael Moore condemns the Iraq war

If you’ve seen any of his documentaries — which have tackled everything from America’s healthcare crisis to the 2008 global financial crisis — you’ll know that Michael Moore is not afraid to share his political views.

It seemed fitting, then, that the film-maker used his Oscar-winning platform to call out the American government for its policies towards Iraq.

“We have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons,” Moore said, alluding to then-US President George W. Bush. “We are against this war,” he shouted over growing boos from the audience.

Sean Penn supports gay rights

It wasn’t even 10 years ago that Sean Penn received the best actor Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, a gay rights activist and politician. But at the time, it was still illegal in the US for two people of the same sex to marry.

Penn made sure to highlight this injustice when receiving his award.

“I think that it is a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to sit and reflect, and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way. We’ve got to have equal rights for everyone,” he told an applauding crowd.

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Originally published at www.weforum.org.

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