LOS ANGELES — There are many things one could say to a crowd of roughly 600 of Hollywood's biggest stars and most influential executives, especially when that crowd is gathered to honor some the greatest figures in filmmaking history. For singer-actor-activist Harry Belafonte, it became an opportunity to speak truth to power.
Since 2009, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has separated its honorary Oscars from the main Academy Awards telecast. For this year's ceremony, a formal affair held Saturday night at the Ray Dolby Ballroom in Hollywood, the Academy chose to give honorary Oscars to the prolific screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière (Belle de Jour, The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Unbearable Lightness of Being), actress Maureen O'Hara (The Quiet Man, Miracle on 34th Street, How Green Was My Valley), and acclaimed animator Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, The Wind Rises). Each were feted with heartfelt testimonials from friends and admirers. Director Philip Kaufman (The Unbearable Lightness of Being) spoke of Carrière's tireless creative energy and penchant for doodling cartoons while in the middle of heated arguments. Clint Eastwood and Liam Neeson spoke of O'Hara's uncommon beauty and talent. Fellow animator John Lasseter praised Miyazaki as "the most original filmmaker ever to work in our medium." And in turn, each of the honorees charmingly expressed their gratitude for the honor.
Harry Belafonte, however, stood apart. For one, the Academy chose to bestow a special award to him, the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, created to honor an "individual in the motion picture industry whose humanitarian efforts have brought credit to the industry." Belafonte certainly qualifies, as one of the leading figures of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, and one of the loudest voices in show business protesting apartheid in South Africa in the 1970s and '80s. The 87-year-old Belafonte has never been shy about speaking his mind, and he didn't stop when talking with the assembled guests at the Governors Awards — many of whom were actors and filmmakers doggedly campaigning for an Oscar this year.
Belafonte first thanked Susan Sarandon for her introduction covering Belafonte's experiences (as well as for her own activism), and Chris Rock for starting off the celebration with some pointed humor. (Of Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, Rock said, "It's nice to see a black president that America still likes!" Then, acknowledging the week's election results, Rock added, "Clint Eastwood had a great Tuesday. He did!")
Then Belafonte turned to his prepared remarks, and he didn't waste any time, immediately evoking the virulently racist film Birth of a Nation to speak to Hollywood's shameful past with regard to the portrayal of race. And he did not stop there.
Belafonte's remarks, published in full below, offer both a pointed and powerful rebuke of Hollywood's past and a stirring inducement to continue the industry's more recent progress on human rights issues.