Joaquin Phoenix made headlines recently when he used his Bafta award speech to decry film awards being systemically given to White people, as he had received for his performance in“Joker.”
He approached the stage professionally styled and gave rousing words to thunderous applause. In other words, after he had received his award for acting, he proceeded to demonstrate why he deserved a reward for acting. What if, instead of performing on stage—which the public already acknowledged that he could do—he had never shown up at all? What if, when it was time for him to smile for the people and show off his tuxedo, he had never appeared? What if White actors refused to show up until their colleagues of color were acknowledged, paid equally, and given the same amount of promotion on a regular basis? Perhaps instead of performing and receiving attention for one’s“valor in the face of injustice,”White actors stopped participating in the proliferation of injustice and stopped accepting accolades until their counterparts of color can join them.
For one thing, accepting an award and participating in the charade of merit cosigns on the notion that the only people worthy of awards are White actors, and that only they deserve that platform. Even though many people claim to believe that race is not an issue, they are constantly affirming that every White actor who receives an award deserves it, whether or not there are more impressive actors of color denied it. Elizabeth Banks attempted to use her platform at the Women in Film Awards to address the need for more women on screen, and admonished Steven Spielberg for not having more women in any of his films. Steven Spielberg was responsible for“The Color Purple,”not only majority Black based on a book by a Civil Rights author—Alice Walker—but the movie that successfully launched the acting career of Oprah Winfrey. Many are still surprised that Whoopi Goldberg did not receive an Oscar for her performance. Elizabeth Banks seemed instead to be lamenting the absence of White women in Spielberg’s career, not all women, and compounded the issue by ignoring Shari Belafonte—daughter of Harry Belafonte—who emphatically tried to correct her. If White actresses truly feel that there is no need to acknowledge actresses of color, they have no right to expect solidarity.
Speaking after accepting an award also makes the speech about the person and not the issue. If there are issues that deserve more attention, then the actors ought to use their platforms to draw attention to their causes outside the event, rather than just to themselves. Marlon Brando—yes, that one—declined an Oscar for his performance in“The Godfather,”sent Sacheen Littlefeather in his place, and let her speak on the ongoing injustices among Native Americans. Even though Marlon Brando had needed to revive his career after a nearly twenty-year decline, he had used that time to become active in political movements, including the American Indian Movement. When the presenter tried to present Littlefeather with the Oscar, she refused it and gave her own speech because Brando was committed to putting the spotlight on her, not himself. He knew that even though he needed to get back on stage and screen, there were more important matters to acknowledge, and he gave space to those matters instead of commanding further attention. Speeches with statues become virtue signalling that rarely, if ever, lead to change. They remind one of the apologies for apartheid that keep Black South Africans in poverty.
Film premiers and award shows are incredibly influential, and designers can get publicity and launch careers just because actors wear certain outfits. Some people may remember in 2016 when no designers had approached Leslie Jones until she tweeted that she had no designers willing to dress her for the upcoming“Ghostbusters”premier. When Christian Siriano finally acted as though it was his job, other Black actresses stated that he deserved no praise for being so slow on the uptake. Many people who were watching this play out commented that Leslie Jones was ignored because of her size, despite the fact that Melissa McCarthy, who had also been in“Ghostbusters,”had been dressed. This incident demonstrated that even though someone’s career could have been enhanced, the design world felt that Black bodies were inferior to White bodies, and only responded when its reputation was on the line. In the minds of designers, women of color neither capture nor deserve attention; how much more powerful would it have been if Jones’ co-stars had stood in solidarity with her and stated that they would not appear at the premier until Jones had been called by a designer?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as well as all the other“traditional”awards outlets, has proven that it simply cannot act without bias, and that the only awards worth issuing are for those that demand artists of color stay in their places. Last year, there were so many films featuring artists of color, including“Fast Color,”which got no publicity whatsoever;“Hustlers,”with Jennifer Lopez, Constance Wu, and Keke Palmer, respectively Puerto Rican, Taiwanese-American, and Black female representation;“Dolemite Is My Name,”“Just Mercy,” “Uncut Gems,”“Motherless Brooklyn,”and several other films in response to the demand from the United States populace that said,“Why must everyone on screen be White?”The Academy has refused to change its behavior, refused to gain any self-awareness that it is the problem, and refused to take a break to determine how to change both its actions and influence. Accepting an Academy Award legitimizes the inequity; every White artist who continues to take an award is saying,“I would rather legitimize this bad behavior than admit that I am contributing to this issue,”even if they step into the spotlight and proclaim otherwise.
In 2020, people need to understand that careers in film need to be about expression, not accolades. The only reason awards continue to be given is to pit people against each other so that no one notices just how inequitable the film world is, giving people false hope, akin to that empty the hope that anyone can eventually become a billionaire. For over twenty years, there was a Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show, and because people rallied together and agreed that there was no more need for the racism and sexism of that event, it no longer exists. Getting rid of awards and refusing to participate removes the impetus to compete, instead driving pure expression. We won’t move forward if we continue to be bound to traditions designed to exclude and ignore those who do not conform to the dominant narrative. So maybe White celebrities, including Joaquin Phoenix, should sit out all the awards to demonstrate that in the year 2020, being“woke”is more than conforming to tradition while signaling otherwise in very public pedestals. After all, if one has a lot of money and would like to take a stand, it would help if they refused to hold a statue in their hand.
After hearing about the stunts at the State of the Union speech—during which the Medal of Freedom was awarded to Rush Limbaugh—it appears that those who subscribe to the dominant narrative are confused. To them, marginalized people have not asked for justice, the right to live peaceful and autonomous lives, or humanity. Instead, the dominant narrative suggests that the request was simply for pithy, attention-grabbing stunts which advance popularity and pocketbooks of the already-rich and popular, to the sound of thunderous applause. At least Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez—because of course it was a woman of color—had enough sense to stop legitimizing rampant abuses of power.