Revolutionaries on the Red Carpet: Oscar Winners Talk Social Justice

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2015 Oscar winners

February 23, 2015; Washington Post

While some of the social justice commitments of Hollywood stars may seem on occasion to be thin, during Sunday night’s Oscars telecast, a number of Oscar winners and others spoke out strongly on the social themes in their movies and in the film industry overall.

  • Eddie Redmayne, the best actor winner for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything, and Julianne Moore, the best actress winner for Still Alice, spoke in moving terms of the diseases their movies addressed: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) in Redmayne’s film, early onset of Alzheimer’s in Moore’s. Writing for the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg noted that both films were also important statements about the challenges faced by caregivers and companions when loved ones become ill or disabled, as mentioned by both Redmayne and Moore.
  • Best supporting actress winner Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), having portrayed a single mother coping with raising a child and trying to continue her education, spoke out about wage equality for women in the workplace: “To every woman who gave birth, to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation, we have fought for everybody else’s equal rights,” Arquette said. “It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all, and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” In Hollywood, however, she might have also mentioned that the proportion of women working behind the camera in roles as directors and editors is as small as it has been in many years, despite all the talk about women’s rights as a subject in contemporary film—only 17 percent, as mentioned by the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday.
  • In accepting the award for best documentary (Citizenfour), Laura Poitras talked about the dangers of government secrecy and surveillance, capping the film’s important recognition of the role of whistleblowers like Citizenfour subject Edward Snowden.
  • Winning the award for best song from Selma, John Legend addressed the issue of race: “We wrote this film for events that happened 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now,” Legend said. “We live in the most incarcerated country in the world. There are more black men incarcerated today than were in slavery in 1850.” Although the role of the Oscar host is often a little silly, Neil Patrick Harris did slip in a crack about the “whiteness” of Hollywood, which continues to be a problem that the industry has yet to overcome.
  • Best director winner of the best film (Birdman), Alejandro González Iñárritu, spoke about his native Mexico and the presence of Mexicans in the U.S.: “I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve, and the ones that live in this country, who are a part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”

Maybe they are all great actors (and directors) who snowed the viewers, but to this observer, their statements all rang as sincere beliefs and commitments. Every nonprofit that is engaged in addressing ALS, Alzheimer’s, women’s rights, immigrant rights, whistleblowers, or government surveillance should be proud that Oscar winners took the stage not to drone platitudes about social messages crafted by their agents, but to make brief, dignified, heartfelt statements about the causes and concerns that motivate them as artists and as people.—Rick Cohen

  • Gene Takagi

    I enjoyed the article, Rick!

    Add Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1’s Ellen Goosenberg Kent and Dana Perry, Best Documentary Short. Both filmmakers talked about the importance of crisis hotlines, and Perry shared that she lost her son to suicide, saying, “We should talk about suicide out loud.” The Phone Call, Best Live Action Short, focused on the same topic, though in that case, the highlight of the award winners’ speeches was a request for free donuts. The film, however, speaks for itself.