How The Oscars Addressed The Unspeakable Issue

Photo: David Fisher/REX USA.
"Tonight, we honor Hollywood's best and whitest — I mean brightest," cracked Neil Patrick Harris, referencing one of several elephants in the room at last night's 87th Annual Academy Awards. Throughout the night, many Oscar winners took their moment at the mic to shine a spotlight on something much bigger than their film. Both explicit and indirect, rarely a speech passed without a reference to racial equality, women's rights, suicide, or sexuality — some more successful than others. 

"To every woman who gave birth to every taxpayer and citizen of this nation: We have fought for everybody else's equal rights. It's our time to have wage equality once for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America," declared Best Supporting Actress Winner, Patricia Arquette. Her brief but potent statement brought the room to its feet, and Meryl Streep shouted her own support from the audience.

However, her following comments in the press room brought justifiable ire. "It’s time for all the women in America, and all the men that love women, and all the gay people and all the people of color that we've all fought for, to fight for us now." In this tone-deaf comment, Arquette appeared ignorant herself of the economic and cultural disparity between women of different ethnicities. Well intentioned though she may have been, many thought the problematic statement seemed to bely an enduring tone of straight, white privilege.

Suicide awareness was a consistent theme throughout the night, beginning with Robin Williams' appearance in the In Memoriam segment. The issue was addressed in two separate speeches. Graham Moore told the story of his own suicide attempt as a teenager while accepting the award for Best Adapted Screenplay. "I would like for this moment to be for that kid out there who feels like she doesn't fit in anywhere," Moore concluded. "You do. Stay weird. Stay different, and then when it's your turn and you are standing on this stage, please pass the same message along."

Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, a film which highlights the alarming rate of suicide among former servicemen and women, took home the prize for Best Documentary Short. Producer Dana Perry dedicated the award to her son, Evan, who committed suicide at age 15. "We should talk about suicide out loud. This is for him." 

Alejandro González Iñárritu called out U.S. immigration policies while accepting the Best Picture award for Birdman. Iñárritu's win follows Alfonso Cuarón, who took home the same award last year for Gravity, marking back-to-back wins for Mexican directors. "Maybe next year the government will inflict immigration restrictions," he joked. "Two Mexicans in a row. That's suspicious, I guess." Turning serious, Iñárritu said he hoped that this generation of U.S. immigrants "can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation."    
Edward Snowden's longtime girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, took the stage alongside Citizenfour filmmakers accepting the award for Best Documentary Feature. Harris followed the speech with a joke about Snowden's absence, saying, "The subject of Citizenfour couldn't be here for some treason."

"Glory" was, perhaps, the biggest winner of the night. First, John Legend and Common brought the audience to tears with their performance of the song composed for Selma, on a replica of the legendary Edmund Pettus Bridge. Minutes later, they were back on stage with an impassioned speech about the vitality of the civil rights movement 50 years later. "We say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now," said Legend. "We know that right now the struggle for freedom and justices where we live in the most incarcerated country in the world." 
Advertisement
Referencing the bridge replica on stage, Common added that "the spirit of this bridge connects the kid from the South Side of Chicago, dreaming of a better life, to those in France standing up for their freedom of expression, to those in Hong Kong, protesting for democracy. This bridge was built on hope, welded with compassion, and elevated with love for all human beings."
Advertisement