Despite stirring support for the spirit of Selma, and big prizes for Hispanic film-makers, it was the unfortunate throwaway remarks which will linger longest after the 87th Academy Awards
By Steven W Thrasher
Penn, who starred in Iñárritu’s 21 Grams all the way back in 2003, probably thought it was a funny joke with an old friend. But racism from friends assumed to be benign can be the worst kind, especially at an awards show: just ask black author Jackie Woodson, whose “friend” used presenting her with a National Book Award to make a watermelon joke.
The incident highlighted Oscar’s uneasy relationship with race, which was on full display throughout last night’s ceremony. Along with Tinseltown’s fraught relationship with American militarism, Penn bookended a politically awkward and often uncomfortable evening, which started with host Neil Patrick Harris making a joke about Hollywood celebrating its “best and whitest”.
Four hours later, Penn reminded the world that white supremacy is never far away in America, and it’s at its most insidious and powerful when wielded by self-proclaimed Hollywood liberals–like Penn.
And Penn’s penultimate moment of the broadcast was its lowest point, when he brought to the fore not just the simmering, weird way race was near at hand with several African Americans who weren’t nominated. He showed that white supremacy in Hollywood needs to assert itself even in the face of minority exceptionalists who are nominated and actually win–that it needs to remind a brown film-maker receiving the Academy’s highest honor that he is still a sonofabitch with a green card, ostensibly stealing work from good white folk.
In a way, Penn did us a favor: he exposed Hollywood’s faux liberalism for what it truly is. Hollywood has an uneasy relationship with racism, feminism and militarism because it will exploit all of them to keep making money. It is not concerned with diversity or economic justice, except to the extent it can feign interest in any of them to perpetuate its own power.
It doesn't matter if Alejandro Inarritu thought Sean Penn's joke was funny—the Oscars belong to the people at home
By Erin Keane
There’s no reason to believe that’s not true—as comedian Sara Benincasa tweeted last night, “Innaritu and Penn are both rich successful dudes who probably bro down in piles of money and make fun of each other.” As is their right! Friends know where the line is that they allow each other to cross and none of us know the particulars of their “brutal” friendship. My own family includes several different nationalities, and cultural differences do come up, and when they do, sometimes we joke about them, as is our privilege as private citizens with functioning senses of humor.
But Sean Penn wasn’t pulling his buddy’s leg at an afterparty or backstage. He planted himself front and center on stage and made a groaner of a green card joke at the climax of a long and weird ceremony that capped off a long and often intense Oscar campaign season that left many viewers furious over an #OscarsSoWhite and acting and directing snubs for “Selma.” None of that necessarily is Penn’s responsibility to ameliorate, but would it have killed the guy to keep the ethnic jokes to himself until he and his friend were safely off-screen?
I’m sure Penn just felt excited to see his good friend’s name in the envelope and responded the best way he knew how, with a comment that he perceived as fond. But even if the Oscars are Hollywood’s biggest night of the year, once the stars are on stage during the broadcast, the awards cease to belong only to them. Iñárritu might have been the man of the night, but this wasn’t a private party, or even a Comedy Central roast where the form explicitly calls for brutal personal jokes that cross the line of good taste. The Academy Awards are really for the viewing audiences at home. Isn’t that the contract behind this spectacle? They put on designer finery and learn to pronounce each others’ names and walk up on stage without making an ass of themselves, and we watch and clap and tweet and fawn and criticize and generally remind them that they’re still relevant in a world where television in all of its mutating glory is fast overtaking their industry in relevance, quality and diversity. And when an A-list star makes a tasteless joke in the middle of all of that, it can’t just be a personal gag at a close friend. Penn’s immigration joke went out to the whole viewing public—many of whom struggle with immigration status challenges that Iñárritu will not likely face again, if he ever did.
Of course, conservatives responded to this as well as Selma in a racist way:
Trump Weighs In On The Oscars: 'It Was A Great Night For Mexico, As Usual'
"There was a lot of conservative-hatred there. There was no question about that," Trump said. Yes, there's no question that Hollywood hates the conservatives' bigotry against blacks, women, gays, immigrants, et al. Trump nailed it for once.
For more on the subject, see Hollywood Still White in 2015 and Another White Year at the Oscars.