Too often, things are swept down the memory hole in popular culture. This is especially true in Hollywood.
The outrage and shock being displayed by many in regard to Will Smith’s slap of comedian Chris Rock at the Oscars is very telling. But what I find the most interesting is this persistent belief about this ceremony being some kind of fortress of civility. It is farcical on so many levels.
Were the Oscars civil to Hattie McDaniel when she was the first Black woman to win the coveted award for best supporting actress in Gone with the Wind? McDaniel was segregated from the rest of the cast at the awards ceremony and not allowed to attend the “whites only” gala that followed. She was lucky, in many ways. Other Black actors in the film were not even credited. Were they civil to Vanessa Redgrave when she courageously defended Palestinian human rights? Redgrave was booed and partially blacklisted by that “oh so civil” Hollywood industry.
And then there was the case of Native-American actress, model, and civil rights activist Sacheen Littlefeather, who accepted the Oscar on behalf of Marlon Brando in 1973 for The Godfather. Brando declined in protest due to the continued negative portrayal of Native Americans in Hollywood movies and asked Littlefeather to represent him. She gave a speech decrying, in the most mildest of ways, the rancid stereotyping of her people to both boos and applause.
John Wayne, that emblem of ugly white supremacist America, had to be restrained by no less than six body guards in order to keep him from rushing the stage to manhandle Littlefeather off. The rest of the evening was full of backhanded jeers and jokes at the expense of her and Native Americans.
Will Smith’s outburst was certainly newsworthy, but let’s not pretend that Hollywood is some kind of bastion for civility or ethics. Its history is laced with odious prejudice and bigotry that dwarf the spectacle of an ill-tempered slap in the face.
Kenn Orphan, March 2022