At the 1973 Academy Awards Marlon Brando rejected the Best Actor Oscar for The Godfather. He was protesting the treatment of Native Americans, both on-screen and off-screen. The effect of his actions may give us something to think about in the aftermath of last weekend's 88th ceremony.
When Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann announced the Best Actor award then, a young Native American girl came up and explained Brando's reason for refusal. Her name was Sacheen Littlefeather, and she was the President of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee. She said the letter Brando had given her to read, was too long, and so she instead summarized his stand. In an interview later she revealed that a producer had threatened to arrest her if she spoke for more than 60 seconds.
The next day the New York Times printed the whole text of the letter. In it Brando explains why this issue was relevant to the Academy - "the motion picture community has been as responsible as any for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character, describing his as savage, hostile and evil. It's hard enough for children to grow up in this world. When Indian children watch television, and they watch films, and when they see their race depicted as they are in films, their minds become injured in ways we can never know."
Brando's speech has two reminders for the current debate on discrimination. One, if discrimination exists in society, it will be reflected in the representation and opportunity for minorities in all industries. The Academy problem is a Hollywood problem, and the Hollywood problem is a society problem. Last week President Obama said "I think the Oscar debate is really just an expression of this broader issue, 'Are we making sure that everybody is getting a fair short?'"
Second, the movie industry is special because films both reflect our biases and are one of the most powerful tools to defeat them. Ms.Littlefeather's appearance or Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee's boycott this year may seem like disruptions, but make no mistake that they are important contributors to addressing discrimination.
Brando faced heavy criticism post his refusal of the award. In an interview he gave soon after, he said that people were angry at the intrusion of reality in their fantasy. Getting attention, he said, often took a big noise and tub thumping, citing the insistence of black people on changing their image – "if they had just been silent and thought, 'Well, gradually wisdom will come to those who are in the business of the movies and they will do right by us.' And they would never have come." Brando had also supported the Zionist movement for a Jewish homeland in 1946, and had joined Dr. Martin Luther King in the March on Washington in 1963.
Majorities don't talk about minorities easily. It almost always takes hopping and shouting and seemingly distasteful arm waving. Actions that get spurned as theatrical or exaggerated are often what it takes to bring an audience. Brando's actions at the 1973 Oscars brought the world media to Wounded Knee. Wounded Knee was the occupation sight of the Native Americans protesting the government's failure to honor treaties with the tribes. Thus far there had been a media blackout on the protest.
Wounded Knee was seen as a turning point. Consequent years under President Nixon witnessed far-reaching changes in government policy towards Native Indians. On a popular Native Indian history website, Nixon ranks first in the list of American Presidents most beneficial for the community. Identifying a single cause for significant change is never easy; the 71-day Wounded Knee occupation had brought new momentum into Native Indian leadership, the Lakota tribe had built their own radio to overcome the media blackout, a young NPR reporter disobeyed the government by providing smuggled stories, and Marlon Brando used the Oscars to get the nation's attention.
Nearly four-and-a-half decades later the diversity debate in Hollywood and society has come many steps forward, but still has a way to go. In 1973 Brando was singled out. This time, in his acceptance speech Inarritu said we should make sure that "the colour of our skin becomes as insignificant as the length of our hair". DiCaprio, speaking directly to indigenous people around the world, held that "it is time that we recognize your history and that we protect your indigenous lands". Brando would have been happy at the success of The Revenant - Dr. Leo Killsback, professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University, writes that The Revenant is a game-changer for "the Indians represent justice, as they are moved beyond the stereotypical roles of unpredictable and impulsive brutes".
The success of Brando in 1973 or today's boycotters is that it made everyone debate race and representation. Inspiring conversations on these topics, the kind many living rooms saw this past weekend, is the first step towards change.
The full text of Marlon Brando's letter for the 1973 Oscars: