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Abdul-Jabbar writes: "The Oscars went out not with a bang, but a nearly four-hour whimper. When it comes to activism, Hollywood is not ready for its close-up."

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Dan Winters)
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (photo: Dan Winters)

Why Hollywood Activism Failed at the Oscars

By Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, The Hollywood Reporter

08 March 18


ased on all the outraged rhetoric and impassioned chest-thumping from women and men in the film industry leading up to the Oscars, this year’s Academy Awards broadcast promised to be the most politically controversial and socially outspoken show in history. A moral reckoning was at hand. No more water but the fire this time. There was so much to talk about #MeToo, Time's Up, the NRA and the apologist politicians in their deep pockets, Trump’s kneecapping the Constitution, DACA and more. However, the Oscars went out not with a bang, but a nearly four-hour whimper.

When it comes to activism, Hollywood is not ready for its close-up.

Oh, it had its moments. The most impressive came from best actress winner Frances McDormand, who, channeling Elmer Gantry, whooped and cackled and prompted all the women nominees to stand and deliver their message of gender unity. This was not the even-tempered and artful speech we’d heard from Oprah that had stirred us all at the Golden Globes. This was theatrical and blunt and spontaneous, but no less subversive and inspiring. She was the fully charged defibrillator jump-starting the placid audience's hearts. If only, after all the talk about the marginalized finding their voices, more people would have used theirs to articulate and empower.

First, a disclaimer: I enjoyed the show. Jimmy Kimmel was charming and funny, Maya Rudolph and Tiffany Haddish were goofy and delightful, the songs were entertaining and lively, the presenters and winners were gracious and humble. I had seen all the best picture nominees and had a lot of opinions about what should win what.

But, amid the glitz, gowns and bedazzled stage, the Oscars decided to, for the most part, pull down the shades on the outside world. In his opening monologue, Jimmy Kimmel practically encouraged activist speech when he said, “We want you to say whatever you feel needs to be said. Speak from the heart. We want passion. You have an opportunity and a platform to remind millions of people about important things like equal rights and equal treatment. If you want to encourage others to join the amazing students at Parkland at their march on the 24th, do that.” Most who chose to use the spotlight as a platform opted either for cute quips or polite chiding designed to preach to the gathered choir rather than boldly express the kind of sustained outrage that motivates people out of their lethargy. Playing to the crowd changes nothing.

It was #OscarsSoLite.

Of course, no one should feel pressured, obligated or shamed into using their glorious moment of achievement to make any kind of political statement. Only those with a passionate commitment to a cause should speak out. I’m all for thanking moms, spouses and children. I’m also for saying something that might make the world a better place for those same moms, spouses and children — and for those people outside the bright, shiny theater without a spotlight or microphone.

Some will complain that the Oscars is not the time and place. Which is what Paul Ryan and other politicians said about discussing gun control after the Parkland shootings. That’s what they always say after every school shooting. That’s what the powers that be told Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks and the four African-American college students who sat down at a segregated Woolworth’s lunch counter in North Carolina and chose not to leave when they were refused service. That’s what they’re telling the Parkland students who are tirelessly pleading their message at every time and every place. At first, every social movement is decried as too much, too soon, too loud, too demanding.

That’s the point: to be heard over the detractors, our voices must sometimes offend, be loud, be harsh, be inappropriate. Most important, they must be persistent. When true believers pass on opportunities to address social inequities, they send the message that the problems aren’t that urgent. They can wait until after I collect my accolades.

In 2013, I was at the NAACP Image Awards when 86-year-old Harry Belafonte, upon receiving the Springarn Medal for outstanding achievement, gave a moving speech about the effects of gun violence on the African-American community. It was one of the most powerful speeches I had ever heard. I had admired the man all my life, but after that night I revered him.

Then out came Jamie Foxx to receive his Entertainer of the Year award. We all expected the tone to revert back to the usual thanks-for-the-award tone. Instead, this is what Jamie Foxx said: “All I can say is I'm so humbled tonight. I was thinking of all the stuff I could say personally about myself, and I was gonna be all about me and how I did it, and how me and me and I and I. Then you watch Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier come out. And you say to yourself, 'It's really not [that] big of a deal what you're doing just yet. I had so many things I wanted to say, but after watching and listening to Harry Belafonte speak, sometimes I feel like somehow I failed a little bit in being caught up in what I do, and maybe that's the young generation and that's what it is. But I guarantee you I'm going to work a whole lot harder, man.” This might be one of the most honest and motivating acceptance speeches I had ever heard.

I felt that same spirit a few times during the Oscars: especially during Frances McDormand’s firecracker speech and the heartfelt presentation by Ashley Judd, Annabella Sciorra and Salma Hayek. But for the most part, the show seemed scared, frightened by a year of lower audience attendance at movies, wanting to pander rather than inspire.

That night in 2013, everyone in the room felt buoyed by Harry Belafonte and Jamie Foxx’s words. We had been lifted to a place where we could glimpse, if only momentarily, that Better Place we all strive to build for our children. We had been challenged to take a step closer to that place. Yes, shiny awards were given. Accomplishments praised. People thanked. But there was also a fierce commitment to improving, not just entertaining, the community. I had hoped for that same grit at the Oscars. But then a voice whispered, “Forget it, Kareem. It’s Hollywood.” your social media marketing partner


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+6 # Wise woman 2018-03-08 21:45
Sadly, Kareem, you're right. Perhaps tho, it is time for the rich and famous to sit back and let the kids take over. They are doing an excellent job and are organizing for much bigger and greater things. The sexual deviant movement began in Hollywood and has spread rapidly throughout the world. The gun problem is well on its way. So let's all take heart and remember where we were just a short year ago and how much has changed and will continue to do so.
+6 # jp marat 2018-03-08 23:02
I suspect that a great many people in attendance were pretty self centered and career minded. Our athletes seem bolder than our "entertainment intellectuals"? Drawing huge audiences requires dumbing down and limiting controversy. Some good, thoughtful, timely movies this year, nonetheless.
+5 # elkingo 2018-03-08 23:08
Right. Decency a passing fad. The few individuals cited were indeed terrific, but capitalism will swallow even the gun madness control.
+9 # tomballard 2018-03-09 03:59
Hollywood isn't just a reflection of the broader racist, sexist, imperialist culture, it is a large part of how the power elite stay in power.
-1 # henry8 2018-03-11 20:02
Kareem has finally gotten an editor and one who told him to get a tidied up photo. Thus he has written a couple of columns that seem professionally put together. Good for you, Kareem.
The biggest flaw I saw in the Oscars was the refusal of the Academy to even nominate L'll Rel Howery for best supporting actor for his spectacular and unforgettable performance in GET OUT.
We need to complain about the lack of substance in Hollywood Product in the last 20 years with a few notable exceptions. I wish that instead of a bunch of rich, successful women yelling about their oppression, at least one of them would have have critcized the industry for its failure to make first rate movies as it always did up until the last writers' strike. Aren't you tired of movies about people who can fly? I think an oration on that from one of these disenfranchised , harrassed, put upon women would have brought all of the Academy and America to its feet. (Incidentally not one of them had the passion that the Florida High School kids have and incidentally not the success.) How can the Academy award the best picture oscar to a film about a woman who makes love to a fish!!! And the sad fact is that an arguement can be made that it, in fact, was the best picture.

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