On Monday morning, President Donald Trump had something to say, as he often does. This time, it was in response to the Oscars or, more specifically, Spike Lee’s passionate, if messy, acceptance speech for Best Adapted Screenplay at Sunday evening’s Academy Awards.
“Be nice if Spike Lee could read his notes, or better yet not have to use notes at all, when doing his racist hit on your President, who has done more for African Americans (Criminal Justice Reform, Lowest Unemployment numbers in History, Tax Cuts,etc.) than almost any other Pres!,” Trump tweeted.
During his speech, Lee thanked his parents and his enslaved ancestors, then reminded the audience that the 2020 presidential election “is around the corner.”
“Let’s all mobilize,” he said, “Let’s all be on the right side of history. Make the moral choice between love versus hate. Let’s do the right thing!”
Lee’s speech and Trump’s reaction to it represent the interesting, ongoing dichotomy of politics at the Academy Awards. For decades, the ceremony has been as much about glitz and glam as it’s been about providing a platform for Hollywood’s elite to voice their political opinions. Think Marlon Brando’s 1973 Best Actor acceptance speech, where he sent Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his stead to talk about the oppression of Native American people. Or think of Patricia Arquette’s 2015 acceptance speech for “Boyhood,” where she called for wage equality for women.
At Sunday night’s Oscars, the theme was breaking down barriers and breaking down walls. Jose Andres and Diego Luna introduced Best Picture nominee “Roma,” stating that the film serves as a reminder of “the understanding and compassion that we all owe to the invisible people in our lives — immigrants and women — who move humanity forward.” (Hillary Clinton tweeted her approval of the statement.)
Javier Bardem, speaking Spanish as he presented the Best Foreign Language Film award to “Roma,” declared, “There are no borders or walls that can restrain ingenuity and talent.”
In his speech, Cuaron thanked the academy for recognizing “a film centered around an indigenous woman, one of the 70 million domestic workers in the world without work rights, a character that has historically been relegated in the background in cinema.”
Later in the night, Rami Malek accepted his Best Actor award for “Bohemian Rhapsody,” saying, “I am the son of immigrants from Egypt. I’m a first-generation American, and part of my story is being written right now.”
Political and politicized moments such as these have always been a staple of the Oscars and of awards season as a whole, but they’ve also served to alienate some viewers who abhor so-called Hollywood liberalism. On Twitter, Rudy Giuliani lamented the good ol’ days when Bob Hope used to host the show, complaining about “very little comedy and a lot of pontification and bloviating all in service of limousine liberalism.”
The pontification and bloviating he speaks of could, from another perspective, be seen as progress. After all, history was made over and over again at the ceremony ― “Roma” was the first Foreign Language Film winner also nominated for Best Picture, Alfonso Cuaron became the first cinematographer to win an Academy Award for a movie he also directed, Spike Lee won his first Oscar ever, Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler became the first black women to win in their categories ever, Mahershala Ali became the first black actor to win two Oscars for Best Supporting Actor, Peter Ramsey became the first black director to win for Best Animated Feature Film, and on and on.
For some, “Green Book” getting the Best Picture award at the end of the night seemed to undermine all the progress and strides. “Every time somebody’s driving somebody, I lose,” Spike Lee playfully quipped backstage, referring to the infamous loss of “Do the Right Thing” to “Driving Miss Daisy” in 1990. But in another sense, one can look at the “Green Book” win as a kind of death rattle of those, like Giuliani and others, who want their Hollywood politics to be more palatable.
“Green Book” will fade into obscurity like so many ill-advised Best Picture winners before it. The “Green Book” win couldn’t overshadow the fact that, while there is absolutely still more work to do, the political pontificating about representation, diversity, and the importance of spotlighting marginalized voices is, in a sense, working. It’s easy to be cynical about a room full of millionaires making heartfelt calls to action, but the reality is that the cliche is true: There are kids watching who will be inspired to move the conversation and the art form forward.