Oscar winners Sacheen Littlefeather, Hattie McDaniel, and Jon Wayne (Photo: Made using Canva by Rose Cromwell, The Puma Prensa)
by Rosemary Cromwell, opinion editor
The Oscars recently reentered the collective consciousness when Will Smith walked onto the stage and slapped Chris Rock. Don’t worry, this won’t be another person giving their unsolicited take on who was in the right between the two millionaires in their little on-stage tiff. The event was jarring, but it has already been debated to the ground. Instead, what I want to take this time to focus on is the Academy Awards’ history as it relates to oppression and the darker side of Hollywood.
The Oscars have had an issue with race throughout their history. The first black person to win an Oscar was Hattie McDaniel for her performance as Mammy, the head slave in Gone With the Wind. Now, yes, by modern standards, Gone With the Wind is incredibly problematic, but the worst is yet to come. The awards ceremony was held in a whites-only hotel in Los Angeles in February of 1940. She was only allowed into the hotel as a favor to her agent, and when she entered, she was escorted to a table separate from her co-stars, forced into a corner to sit with just her escort and agent.
In another disgusting incident, at the 45th Academy Awards in 1973, Actress Sacheeen Littlefeather accepted the Best Actor award on behalf of Marlon Brando for his performance in The Godfather. They met on a referral from Francis Ford Coppola, who was neighbors with Littlefeather. She took this opportunity to stand in for Brando to speak out against the poor treatment of Native Americans in Hollywood and to raise awareness about Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee was the site of a massacre of Native Americans in 1890, and in 1973, Native American activists occupied the town in protest with aim to create an independent Ogala tribal nation. The Department of Justice and federal forces laid siege to them, and a media blackout had been imposed on the events, so Littlefeather’s action during the speech was incredibly important. Yet she was limited to 60 seconds before she was removed from the stage, and she was booed by the audience during her speech. John Wayne was reportedly waiting offstage to attack her and had to be physically restrained by six guards. Later in the show, Clint Eastwood presented the Best Film award and mocked Littlefeather, saying that he was presenting it on the behalf of “all the cowboys shot in all the John Ford Westerns.” This moment is regarded as one of the darkest stains on Oscar history, and for good reason. In the years after her speech, both men continued to make disparaging remarks about Littlefeather, calling her a little girl in an Indian costume. They also attacked Brando who invited her, saying that he should have made the point himself.
The Oscars continued to have issues with diversity, leading to the #OscarsSoWhite movement in 2015. For two years in a row, the Academy gave all of the acting nominations to white actors. The outrage, largely from people on Twitter, led to them announcing plans for a more diverse group of actors and filmmakers to join their ranks by 2020, and 2019 saw a record 13 people of color taking home wins across various categories. Yet in 2020, only one person of color was nominated–Cynthia Erivo for her role in Harriet. They vowed to solve the issue but really just put a bandaid on it, which then fell off a year later.
The Academy also has a habit of falling short when it comes time to punish people for their wrongdoings, and the Academy has awarded filmmakers and directors even after allegations surfaced and actions come to light. Harvey Weinstein received 81 Oscar wins for his films despite also having over 80 women come forward to accuse him of sexual assault, harassment and rape. Roman Polanski was given best director in 2009 even though he has been on the run from an arrest warrant since 1978 when he fled the country after being convicted for drugging and raping a 13-year-old in Jack Nicholson’s home while the actor wasn’t there.
Since then, Polanski has been living in France, directing films and hiding from an outstanding warrant. In 2009, when he won the best director award for The Pianist, he received a standing ovation from many, including other nominated directors like Martin Scorcese. When he was arrested in an airport in 2006 while on the way to a Swiss film festival, many Hollywood elites signed a petition started by Harvey Weinstein to free him. Signees include but are not limited to Wes Anderson, Woody Allen, Guillermo Del Toro, Harrison Ford, Jeremy Irons, David Lynch, Natalie Portman, Martin Scorcese and Tilda Swinton. Another mark of this hesitance to punish people is the fact that it took until 2018 for Bill Cosby, who has over 60 women accusing him of rape and two child sex abuse cases involving 15-year-olds, and Polanski to be expelled from the Academy, and Weinstein was removed in 2017. Hollywood, and by extension the Academy like to circle their wagons to protect the old guard even after they do abhorrent things. Harvey Weinstein was the most thanked person during Oscars speeches, second only to Steven Speilberg and tied with God.
Thankfully, over time the Oscars have continued to lose relevance. I wouldn’t have known that it was happening this year unless Chris Rock got smacked on stage. Plenty of great films have been made that elevate the voices of the underrepresented, films like Us and Dolemite is My Name. These movies didn’t win any Oscars, but they were incredibly popular and saw great success regardless of whether they won any golden statue at an awkward and drawn-out award show.
Modern film and culture is moving on from the Oscars and given their track record, I wouldn’t have it any other way.