Politics at the Podium: Award Speeches as Political Platforms

Josie Schuman, Op/Ed Editor

If you had five minutes to speak to the world, what would you say? As the awards show season comes to a close, I reflected on how many celebrities used their award acceptance speeches to comment on sociopolitical issues. Specifically, the Oscars on Feb. 9 contained a slew of controversial acceptance speeches. 

This is not a new phenomenon. Celebrities have often used the Oscars as a platform to discuss sociopolitical issues. According to USA Today, one of the first sociopolitical acceptance speeches happened in 1973 when Marlon Brando rejected his award for best actor. Instead, he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place to protest the misrepresentation of Native Americans in Hollywood. 

In 1994, Tom Hanks won best actor for “Philadelphia” and used his acceptance speech to address the AIDS epidemic. Dustin Lance Black supported the LGBTQIA+ community after winning best original screenplay for “Milk” in 2009. Motivated by an all-white list of nominees and the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Chris Rock addressed issues of racism in 2016 during his opening monologue. And, just a few weeks ago, Joaquin Phoenix used his best actor acceptance speech for his role in “The Joker” to comment on animal rights. 

These statement speeches have not always been well-received by the Hollywood community. In his opening presentation for the Golden Globes, Ricky Gervais expressed his disgust for celebrities who make a political statement during their acceptance speeches. “If you do win an award tonight, don’t use it as a platform to make a political speech. You are in no position to lecture the public about anything. You know nothing about the real world,” he said. “So, if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your god, and f*ck off, okay?”

Gervais, ironically, reflects the common public opinion that celebrities should not use their fame to promote political platforms, but I disagree. I believe that it is their prerogative to use their five minutes in the spotlight as they choose, and I support the use of this time to say something meaningful about our society. 

Many argue that these exorbitantly wealthy celebrities have no right to preach about sociopolitcal issues because they are so far removed from the general public. However, the world is not so drastically different for celebrities and us “normal people.”

Supporters of the #OscarsSoWhite movement criticized the academy for the lack of racial diversity among the nominees. At the end of his opening monologue, Chris Rock addressed the struggle that people of color face in achieving success within the film industry due to implicit racism: “We want opportunity. We want the black actors to get the same opportunities as white actors. That’s it.” While some believe that Rock has no right to talk about racism as a successful black actor, we cannot ignore that he is speaking from his personal experience and struggles as a person of color in Hollywood. 

Dustin Lance Black also discussed his personal experiences in his acceptance speech, addressing the difficulties of growing up as an LGBTQIA+ youth in a conservative Mormon home in San Antonio, Texas. He explained how the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in California, inspired him and his film. “It gave me the hope to live my life. It gave me the hope that one day I could live my life openly as who I am and that maybe even I could fall in love and one day get married.”

I am not going to deny that celebrities’ socioeconomic status allows them to overcome many obstacles, but they are not untouchable. They do not transcend discrimination based on race, gender and sexuality, nor do they have all the answers to remedying these injustices. But they do have a right to draw attention to deeply personal sociopolitical issues that have impacted their lives, and the lives of many others, without being accused of mindless complaining. 

This leads many people to question why celebrities must be the ones to shed light on these issues. Shouldn’t we leave the politics to the politicians? It is a sad but true fact that celebrities are some of the most influential people in America. People look up to them, listen to them and even trust them. 

Returning to Gervais’ comment, people often complain that celebrities should accept their awards and leave the stage, arguing that the Oscars is neither the time nor place to talk about politics. However, the unorthodox timing of these sociopolitical commentaries is exactly what makes them so powerful. 

Similar to the way athletes protested racism by kneeling during the national anthem, these “untraditional” award acceptance speeches are acts of resistance against unjust systems of power. These actions are so controversial because they subvert the status quo. After all, it is bold for celebrities to criticize the very entity that has contributed to their success, which speaks to the necessity of social change.

While people condemn celebrities for adding sociopolitical discussion to a neutral event, the Oscars are inherently political. In an Op/Ed about the Oscars in The Washington Post, Kate Cohen reflects this sentiment. “What I love about awards shows is they remind us that everything is politics, including our entertainment. Movies are politics — not just ‘Parasite’ and ‘Jojo Rabbit’ but also ‘Captain Marvel,’” she said. “Who funds it, who gets to make it, what they make and about whom, who’s cast and who isn’t — all of those are political questions.” 

We cannot blame celebrities for talking about the issues within their respective films. If Dustin Lance Black had not addressed LGBTQIA+ discrimination in his acceptance speech, he would be doing a disservice not only to his community and himself but also to the integrity of the film. Similarly, Chris Rock had to directly address the #OscarsSoWhite movement, as doing otherwise would be ignorant. 

Rather than making the Oscars political, these celebrities are drawing attention to already-existing issues. Sociopolitical commentary is an integral aspect of the entertainment industry, so the Oscars will never just be about the movies. The content of these films and the circumstances surrounding them reflect the sociopolitical issues that are inherently intertwined with our daily lives. To ignore these issues is to ignore reality.

In his acceptance speech for best actor a few weeks ago, Joaquin Phoenix called the audience to action. “I think whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice,” he said. “I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.”

I have no problem with celebrities using their platforms to spread messages of radical social change rooted in love and compassion. People are listening, and this is what they need to hear. I would do the very same with my five minutes.