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The Review/ Feature/

#OscarsSoWhite & the Brando Boycott

Who wins?

by Jesse Wente
Feb 23, 2016

Marlon Brando was a key player in the original Oscar protest, which has now been refashioned in the social media age by #OscarsSoWhite, created by April Reign to protest the lack of diversity in the nominees at the 87th edition held in 2015. In 1973, Brando did not attend the Oscars, despite knowing he was sure to win for his performance in The Godfather. Instead, Brando sent Sacheen Littlefeather, an Indigenous multi-hyphenate, in his place, in what became one of the most famous moments in Oscars history.

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Brando’s choice of Littlefeather is perhaps even more important than the words she spoke. Littlefeather’s appearance gave voice to the voiceless, on a stage on which few performers will ever appear. Her remarkable poise, especially given the room, gave great power to her act of protest. “I did not shout, I did not use profanity. Because these are not the traits of a Native American woman. I did it with grace, elegance and quiet dignity because these are the traits of our people.”

Its import was felt immediately, as those watching from inside the siege at Wounded Knee found renewal in Littlefeather’s appearance, as well as increased media attention that shifted the discourse around Wounded Knee at the time and ever since. Brando famously appeared at the Wounded Knee trials, as did Littlefeather. The legacy of the Oscar protest is still visible today in the expanding Indigenous cinema scene that has arisen in the last three decades, and in the call for a new protest to confront ongoing inequity.

For Littlefeather, this year’s call for a boycott is very familiar. “I’ve been there, done that already!” she laughs. It’s a soothing and reassuring laugh, in the way that only comes with knowing. Speaking a little more than a week from the award’s gala, you can hear the pride in her voice as she discusses the legacy of her Oscar moment.

She reads a recent correspondence with Jada Pinkett Smith, the actress who made the boycott call earlier this year. The two women, separated by a generation but united by a cause, have exchanged emails recently, reaching out to support one another. Littlefeather, as poised and graceful as she was on that Oscar stage, recalls the aftermath of her appearance, the rumours and industry exclusion that greeted her, and worries about Pinkett Smith. While those concerns come from experience, Littlefeather and Brando’s protest has now been re-contextualized with the current Oscar boycott and recent performances by Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar. Platforms such as the Oscars have become a viable space for protest, be it performance or boycott, as they remain one of the few remaining communal viewing experiences experienced live by a mass audience.

But the fact that Littlefeather’s protest is resurgent and reformed in the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and boycott is also an expression of how ingrained prejudicial behaviours are, and indeed how willfully blind the entertainment industry has been to the issues raised by Littlefeather and Brando 43 years ago. While the Academy’s recent reforms, with sweeping changes to the Academy’s voting and membership criteria announced in advance of Sunday’s broadcast, address part of the issue, there remains an enormous equity gap in both representation and employment, a gap allowed to exist because of the reluctance of the industry to confront the history Brando described to Dick Cavett:

don’t think people realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian, and as a matter of fact, all ethnic groups. All minorities. All non-whites. People just simply don’t realize. They took it for granted that that’s the way people are going to be presented, and that these clichés were just going to be perpetuated. So when someone makes a protest of some kind and says, ‘No, please don’t present the Chinese this way...' On this network, you can see silly renditions of human behavior. The leering Filipino houseboy, the wily Japanese or the kook or the gook. The idiot black man, the stupid Indian. It goes on and on and on, and people don’t realize how deeply these people are injured by seeing themselves represented — not the adults, who are already inured to that kind of pain and pressure, but the children. Indian children, seeing Indians represented as savage, ugly, vicious, treacherous, drunken — they grow up only with a negative image of themselves, and it lasts a lifetime.

Forty-three years later and Brando's words still loom large.

Hollywood has never really owned its racial legacy — neither its lack of representation behind the scenes nor its mis­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in front. Nor has it confronted the effects of these things on the wider culture. The relationship between marginalized groups and Hollywood is complex and controversial, and the failure to recognize this contorted history has been a major factor in its continued perpetuation.

Littlefeather and Brando made it impossible to ignore, using the stage granted them to upend the industry that built it. The most recent Oscar boycott has already driven change in its wake, but more is necessary. As Littlefeather says to me, “We’ve had enough already”.

Yes, we have.