Kareem Abdul-Jabbar: Why Hollywood Activism Failed at the Oscars

The THR columnist and NBA legend liked Frances McDormand’s “firecracker” speech and the “heartfelt presentation” on Time’s Up, but for the most part, he writes, it was “#OscarsSoLite.”

Based 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.”

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