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This year the Oscars,  the Academy Awards, given by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for artistic and technical merit in the film industry which are regarded by many people as the most esteemed and important awards in the entertainment industry worldwide were overshadowed by a slap. The fact that Will Smith slapped the face of comedian compère Chris Rock for making an inappropriate joke about his wife is an inexcusable way of dealing with his reaction to the joke. However there is something wrong with the entire reaction. Everybody seems to have done the politically correct thing by condemning Will Smith, but there seems to be almost no reaction to the Chris Rock joke. If anything, it appears to have boosted his reputation positively. It was a month ago so the storm has died down; most people will have forgotten what happened. That does not mean it is gone away or should be allowed to go away.

There is something inherently wrong about the bigger picture. This was a spat between two African-Americans. There is an open question as to whether the reaction would have been quite as extreme if a white actor had slapped Rock’s face? In a country where police stop, arrest, wound and kill Black people almost indiscriminately, many if not most of them unarmed, except that the officer thought… and often with absolutely no reason for any action, is the reaction quite right? How would it be under other circumstances?

There have been people ejected for breaking the ‘rules’ or doing ‘bad’ things. Yet back in 1973 The Godfather won three of ten nominations, but the actual award ceremony became controversial. Roger Moore announced Marlon Brando as winner of the Best Actor Oscar, but he was not there to accept his award. Instead of Brando, a Native American actress and activist, Sacheen Littlefeather, turned up in traditional dress on his behalf then turned down the statue from the presenter. She then took the opportunity to tell the Academy and an estimated 85 million people watching at home that Marlon Brando did not accept the award due to ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…and on television and movie re-reruns’, also referring to the then recent occupation of Wounded Knee by Native American activists on the site of the 1890 massacre by the army.

The response was that half the audience cheered whilst the rest booed. Then she headed backstage to find to her consternation there were people doing clichéd impressions of Native Americans, parodying tomahawks being used and imitating so-called war cries.

The then biggest Western star in the world, John Wayne, whose characters regularly killed scores of Native Americans in his films was enraged, so was waiting in the wings watching and intending to attack her. During her presentation, he began to approach her intending to forcibly take her off the stage. He had to be restrained by six security men to prevent him doing that. She was escorted off the stage by armed guards. Was John Wayne subjected to the outrage Will Smith has been hit with? He was not asked to resign from the Academy, so basically he got away with it. He was asked to leave, but that was that. He was not the award winner, but got more attention than the actual winner who had refused to turn up as a matter of principle.

The point there being, not Brando’s role in that event, but Wayne’s that was outright racism and rejection of the truth about the First Nations. In a 1971 interview with Playboy he stated he believed in white supremacy and made disparaging comments about Black, indigenous and LGBTQ+ people. In his words; “I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility” … “I don’t believe in giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people.” On another occasion he expressed a view that it was not wrong for white Americans to take Native American land, because “There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.” The Oscar ceremony and Wayne’s words may well be half a century ago but the sentiments have not changed substantively. Racism is as alive as ever.

Now there is a very apparent undercurrent of racism in the Smith-Rock event. The Academy has banned Will Smith from all its events, including the Oscars, for ten years; he had already resigned from the Academy. It is being said he may lose roles that have been lined up for him, whereas Chris Rock appears to be getting more bookings. So, whilst Smith did wrong in smacking Rock, then did not immediately humbly apologise, waiting until the next day to do so, there is something profoundly wrong under the surface that nobody is talking about. Now, even if he is by far the best actor in a film over the next decade, he will neither be nominated nor receive an Oscar. It is clearly not about acting abilities but who is  a favoured member of the Academy.

The Oscars are awards for members of an exclusive club, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, not for other people as actors, film makers or any other aspect of award giving who are not members. It is a largely white club, as an overview of the people present at the awards informs us. There are most certainly many better actors, directors and other members of the cinematic professions in the world who do not get those awards, who do not have millions of people staring admiringly but almost certainly vacuously at their television screens and there are almost certainly large numbers of people from ethnic minorities who will never have the chance. Will Smith happens to have made it, but he is still a Black man so an easy target to have a go at, leaving the question wide open whether a white man would have been chastised as strongly and universally?

Featured image by Mohamed Hassan on Pixels.

Brian Milne
A Social anthropologist who specialises in the human rights of children. In practice Brian Milne has worked on the street with 'street children', child labour, young migrants, young people with HIV and AIDS. Brian’s work has taken him to around 40 countries, most of them developing nations; at least four of them have been in a state of conflict or war, thus taking him to the front line in two. Brian’s theoretical work began with migration; working on, written and publishing on citizenship and generally best known as an 'expert' on the human rights of children. Brian has a broad knowledge of human and civil rights for all ages, environmental issues and has been politically active most of his life. An internationalist and supporter of the principle of European federalisation.

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