The Time Marlon Brando Boycotted Oscars to Protest Hollywood's Treatment of Native Americans

Marlon Brando
Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather, left, refused the Best Actor award on Marlon Brando's behalf. YouTube

For the second year in a row, only white actors were recognized when the Oscar nominations were announced earlier this month. People were upset, and the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite began trending immediately. Spike Lee, Jada Pinkett Smith, Will Smith and others have announced they will boycott the ceremony. 

Mark Ruffalo, who is nominated for Best Supporting Actor, considered boycotting as well, but ultimately decided to attend in support of victims of clergy abuse. Can you imagine, though, the tension in the room if Ruffalo, a prominent nominee, were to have boycotted? What about if he actually won and wasn't there to accept the award? It would have been a powerful gesture, to say the least.

This recalls the time Marlon Brando boycotted the Oscars, in 1973, when he also was nominated—and not for a supporting role in an ensemble cast. No, that year the Academy would honor Francis Ford Coppola's The Godfather, and with it Brando's portrayl of Vito Corleone, one of the most iconic acting performances of all time.

Brando knew he was going to win Best Actor, which is precisely why he boycotted the ceremony in protest of Hollywood's treatment of Native Americans. Attending on his behalf was a Native American activist named Sacheen Littlefeather. When Brando's name was called, she took the stage in traditional garb before refusing to accept the statuette from presenter Roger Moore. She explained that Brando "very regrettfully cannot accept this generous award, the reasons for this being...are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television in movie reruns, and also with recent happenings at Wounded Knee."

She was booed. 

Later that year, Brando sat down for an interview with Dick Cavett. The seasoned interviewer was visibly intimidated by Brando's presence, and both men know it. After a few minutes of awkward banter, the host mustered up the courage to ask the question on everyone's mind. As Brando sipped from a mug, Cavett said: "If you had the Academy Awards night to do over again, would you do any of that differently?"

After a long pause, Brando said that no, he wouldn't have done anything differently. "I felt there was an opportunity," he said. "Since the American Indian hasn’t been able to have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States, I thought it was a marvelous opportunity to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him.”

He continued to address Hollywood's treatment of minorities:

I don’t think people realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian, and a matter of fact, all ethnic groups. All minorities. All non-whites. People just simply don’t realize. They took it for granted that that’s the way people are going to be presented, and that these cliches were just going to be perpetuated. So when someone makes a protest of some kind and says, ‘No, please don’t present the Chinese this way.' ... On this network, you can see silly renditions of human behavior. The leering Filipino houseboy, the wily Japanese or the kook or the gook. The idiot black man, the stupid Indian. It goes on and on and on, and people don’t realize how deeply these people are injured by seeing themselves represented—not the adults, who are already inured to that kind of pain and pressure, but the children. Indian children, seeing Indians represented as savage, ugly, vicious, treacherous, drunken—they grow up only with a negative image of themselves, and it lasts a lifetime.

It's convenient in 2016 to say that Hollywood has made a lot of progress since 1973. It has, of course, but how much of that progress is real progress? How much has Hollywood's marginilzation of minorities simply been repackaged in a way that is more palatable for studio executives and moviegoers? What Brando said in 1973 is still true today: People don't realize what the motion picture industry is doing to minorities.

Earlier this week, New York Times film critic Wesley Morris—who is black—responded to the fallout following the Oscar nominations on The Bill Simmons Podcast. Morris spoke about how the problem isn't necessarily the Academy, but that the black films that didn't receive nominations weren't promoted as "Oscar films" by the studios that produced them. "Despite the fact that Straight Outta Compton came out at the height of summer and made a lot of money, it seemed like Universal was kind of caught off guard about whether to put this movie in front of Oscar voters for consideration," he said. "Unfortunately that’s how this process works. You can’t organically become part of the Oscar conversation, in most cases. You have to have a studio sort of push you in front of Oscar voters.”

Part of the reason these films were not packaged for the Academy's consideration, Morris says, is an "institutional racism when it comes to what people in this town think ‘an Oscar movie’ is.”

He continued: “One of the things that hurts Creed is that the Academy is used to thinking about black people in a certain way and Hollywood is used to thinking about black people in a certain way, If Creed were about a runaway slave who gets to box? If Creed were about a butler’s son who gets to box?”

Ice Cube echoed this sentiment while discussing Straight Outta Compton's Best Picture snub on Power 105.1's The Angie Martinez Show. "Maybe we should've put a slave in Straight Outta Compton," he said. "I think that's where we messed up. That's where we messed up. Just one random slave for the Academy members to recognize us as a real, black movie."

So how much has really changed? It seems the only difference between 1973 and 2016 is that the ways in which minorities are portrayed—the ways in which the industry allows them to participate—are less vulgar and the racism is less explict. 

Another astute point Brando made to Cavett is that the struggle of the marginalized is "block-by-block." Yes, we're talking about black actors now, but what about other minorities? Why do we need to wait for a particularly noteworthy injustice to Asian actors for their struggle to make its way onto Twitter? Why do we need to see Aziz Ansari's Master of None to consider the plight of Indian actors? Why is everything compartmentalized? George Clooney briefly attemped to expand the issue in a recent statement given to Variety regarding the lack of diversity in the Oscars. "By the way, we’re talking about African-Americans," he said. "For Hispanics, it’s even worse. We need to get better at this. We used to be better at it." Unfortunately for Hispanics, Asians, Indians, women and every other minority group, the block du jour is that of the black community. Everyone else will have to wait their turn.

But how do black entertainment professionals make use of the attention currently being given to their particular block? When Cavett mentioned to Brando how disturbing it was that Littlefeather's presence onstage was booed, Brando brought up how vigilance and upsetting the establishment is required in order to enact change, and how the black community has always excelled at demanding justice.

They were booing because they thought, ‘This moment is sacrosanct, and you’re ruining our fantasy with this intrusion of reality. I suppose it was unkind of me to do that, but there was a larger issue, and it’s an issue that no one in the motion picture industry has ever addressed themselves to, unless forced to. The blacks have brought about changes because they were just damn angry about it. They thumped the tub and threatened and made some noise about it. But 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. We have a lot to be grateful for that the blacks were as insistent as they were that the image of blacks would change.

We’re seeing this today in the comments of Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith and everyone else who has spoken out since the nominations were announced. Mark Ruffalo almost boycotted but decided against it, and with good reason. But, again, Mark Ruffalo and Spotlight certainly don't carry the weight of Marlon Brando and The Godfather. But what about, say, Leonardo DiCaprio boycotting when he looked likely to win his long sought after first Oscar?

Of course, no one has the right to call DiCaprio—or anyone—to boycott or speak out, but it's an interesting idea to entertain. After all, if any real change is going to happen in Hollywood, it isn't likely to come block-by-block, or through a Spike Lee Instagram post; it's going to need to come in a way that the system isn't accustomed to dealing with. Someone is going to have to step out of the comfort zone and, as Brando did in 1973, forcefully interject a little reality into the fantasy.

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