When Did The Oscars Get So Political?

We looked at acceptance speeches from the past 50 years

Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Feb 27, 2017 at 10:34 AM ET

The Oscars made history on Sunday with the first award ever to a Muslim actor and the most African American winners ever. “Moonlight,” a movie about a young gay black man, won Best Picture.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, the acceptance speeches also broke ground. A Vocativ analysis shows that words and terms used for the first time in an Oscars speech by winners of marquee categories included “inhumane,” “police brutality,” “bloodshed,” “public schools,” and “gender non-conforming” [sic].

“This goes out to all those black and brown boys and girls and non-gender-conforming who don’t see themselves. We are trying to show you, you and us, so thank you, thank you, this is for you,” Tarell Alvin McCraney, co-screenwriter of “Moonlight,” said in accepting his the Best Adapted Screenplay award.

Ezra Edelman, winning for the documentary OJ: Made In America, dedicated his award to Ron Goldman and Nicole Brown (the victims of the murders), and then said:  “This is also for others — the victims of police violence, police brutality, racially-motivated violence and criminal injustice,” he said.

However, overall, the Oscars were less political than might have been expected, given the tenor of other award shows this year including the Golden Globes, Screen Actors Guild, and the Grammys. For example, back at the Golden Globes, Meryl Streep, in a fiery speech, criticized Trump for mocking a New York Times reporter with a congenital condition. (Trump then responded in his typical fashion, calling her “over-rated” in a tweet.). At the Oscars, host Jimmy Kimmel made a few Trump jokes, but the president’s name didn’t come up much overall.

It’s also somewhat surprising given the history of the Oscars themselves. A Vocativ analysis of acceptance speeches made by winners of the most high profile categories shows how politically-charged words and phrases have been used throughout Oscar history (since 1966, the first year for which the official Academy Award Acceptance Speech Database contains full data).

According to cultural historian Thomas Doherty, politics have been prominent in Hollywood since at least the 1930s, but it was not always overt. It was at that point that the influence of the Hollywood Popular Front, a group of leftist moviemakers, played a prominent role in Hollywood. “[They] used their celebrity and their checkbooks often to donate to Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, [but] it would almost never come into their professional life onscreen and certainly not at the Oscars,” he said.

Even throughout the 1940s and early 1950s when the Second Red Scare resulted in entertainment industry professionals being blacklisted for suspected Communist politics or sympathies, the Oscars remained largely uncontroversial. Things changed somewhat dramatically as the Vietnam War waged overseas throughout the mid-to-late 1950s, 1960s, and into the 1970s, and the fight for civil rights in the U.S. flourished. It was during this time that the team behind the documentary “Hearts and Minds” read a statement from the Vietnamese people and noted, “It’s ironic, of course, to get a prize for a war movie while the suffering in Vietnam continues.”

Since then, speeches have taken a turn for the political. Among those are actress Vanessa Redgrave’s condemnation of anti-Palestinian protestors and President Richard Nixon, Sean Penn’s statement in support of gay marriage when accepting the award for “Milk,” Patricia Arquette’s demand for equal pay for women, author John Irving’s stance in support of Planned Parenthood and the National Abortion Rights League, and “Citizenfour” documentarian Laura Poitras’ condemnation of the NSA. And, of course, who could forget Michael Moore calling out then-President George W. Bush when he won his Oscar.

“We are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you,” Moore said, accepting an award for Bowling for Columbine. His speech was met with audible murmurs, a few shouts of support, and a whole lot of boos.

While we didn’t quite get that kind of obviously anti-Trump statements on Sunday night, it’s likely that the speech read by Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi will be long remembered.

“I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight,” Iranian-American businesswoman Anousheh Ansari read for him. “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US. Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘our enemies’ categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever.”

Many stood to applaud his words.

The statement reflected the one released by all Best Foreign Language Film nominees released earlier in the week, which condemned the “climate of fanaticism and nationalism” apparent in parts of the population and leaders of the U.S. and other countries.