5 times Hollywood celebrities used award shows to talk about social issues — Gaza still isn’t one of them

Hollywood has set a precedent when it comes to speaking up that makes the silence on Gaza even more deafening.
08 Jan, 2024

Time and again Hollywood stars have taken to the stages of the biggest award shows in the world to speak up about political and social issues close to their hearts. Last night was one of the biggest nights in Hollywood — the Golden Globes were held, and we expected to see at least a few people touching upon the brutal Israeli bombardment of Gaza that has wreaked havoc for over three months.

However, no prominent figures voiced the pain and misery of the nearly 23,000 killed and 60,000 wounded, with a majority being women and children.

No major voices were heard calling for a ceasefire or condemning the ruthless aggression Israel has been inflicting on the tiny strip since October 7.

Expecting stars to shed light on the Israeli invasion of the Gaza Strip wasn’t an unreasonable expectation because Hollywood has set a precedent when it comes to speaking up, which makes the silence on Gaza even more deafening.

From strongly opposing Russia’s war on Ukraine in recent years to bringing forth the plight of Native Americans decades ago, we have seen the massive reach these award shows provide to Western celebrities’ voices.

The double standards become even more evident when we compare how these awards themselves have provided space and a platform to take a stance during political conflicts. In 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy made a surprise video appearance at the Grammys, appealing to viewers to support his country “in any way you can”.

“What is more opposite to music? The silence of ruined cities and killed people,” said Zelenskiy in the video that introduced John Legend’s performance of ‘Free’ and featured Ukrainian musicians as well as a reading by Ukrainian poet Lyuba Yakimchuck.

On the other hand, the BBC edited out multiple calls for a ceasefire in Gaza from the Scottish Bafta Awards ceremony in November, including the presentation of an entire award, the National reported.

Director Eilidh Munro, who won the award for best Short Film and Animation, told guests to “put pressure on institutions and our government” and to “use your voice as filmmakers and artists” while her colleague Finlay Pretsell held up a poster, which read: “I refuse to be silent. Ceasefire now.”

The speech was seen by viewers on the livestream produced by Bafta Scotland and shared widely online but the entire award-giving has been removed from the BBC iPlayer’s edit, The National stated.

Images has made a list of five such instances when major Hollywood stars spoke up — and at times were silenced — about issues that mattered.

Godfather’s Marlon Brando rejected his Best Actor Oscar

If you’re a film fan, you must have heard about the iconic film The Godfather (1972), if not watched it numerous times. From memorable dialogues such as “I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse” to legendary performances by Marlon Brando and Al Pacino, the film lives in every cinephile’s heart.

But did you know that when Brando, the actor who played the Godfather, won an Oscar for his iconic performance, he not only declined the honour but also sent his Native American friend Sacheen Litt­le­feather to reject the award on his behalf, protesting the ill-treatment and portrayal of her community in the film industry?

Taking to the stage in a traditional buckskin dress to refuse the Oscar, the little-known actor and the then-president of the National Native American Affirmative Image Committee, gave a critical speech shedding light on the issue.

She also drew attention to a protest at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, against the mistreatment of Native Americans.

“I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you … that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award. And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry…,” she said as a series of boos from the audience interrupted her speech.

Not only were Native Americans absent from the silver screens but were mostly disrespected in films. The following day, The New York Times printed the entirety of his statement — which Littlefeather was unable to read in full.

Half a century later, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences apologised to Littlefeather saying, “The abuse you endured was because of this statement was unwarranted and unjustified. The emotional burden you have lived through and the cost to your own career in our industry are irreparable. For too long the courage you showed has been unacknowledged. For this, we offer both our deepest apologies and our sincere admiration.”

Miley Cyrus sent a homeless man to accept her VMA

In 2014, Miley Cyrus was all the rage, especially after her dance moves and wild tongue gyrations at the MTV Video Music Awards the year before.

While the world expected another crazily viral performance from Cyrus, she surprised everyone by sending a 22-year-old homeless man named Jesse Helt to collect her award on her behalf, bringing attention to the serious issue of homelessness in America.

“My name is Jesse,” he said, reading from notes. “I am accepting this award on behalf of the 1.6 million runaways and homeless youth in the United States who are starving, lost and scared for their lives right now. I know, because I am one of those people.”

“I have survived in shelters all over this city,” he continued. “The music industry will make over $7 billion this year, and outside these doors are 54,000 human beings who have no place to call home.”

The two had met through an organisation called My Friend’s Place, which assists homeless individuals in finding shelters, healthcare as well as education. In less than a day, $200,000 was raised, according to the NGO.

According to the singer’s representative, she was inspired by Brando’s decision to have Littlefeather reject his Best Actor award at the Academy Awards.

“Now is just the beginning for me,” the ‘Wrecking Ball’ singer had said of the anti-homelessness effort. “We gotta start somewhere.”

Leonardo DiCaprio used his Oscar speech to speak about the climate crisis

When American actor Leonardo DiCaprio finally walked away with the Oscar for Best Actor, after being nominated for the award five times, for his role in 2015’s The Revenant, the world couldn’t rejoice enough.

The actor made the most of his moment onstage as he proceeded to talk about the importance of recognising global warming and its effects on the planet.

“Climate change is real, it is happening right now, it is the most urgent threat facing our entire species and we need to work collectively and stop procrastinating. We need to support leaders around the world… who speak for all of humanity.”

The actor added that we can’t take the planet for granted anymore, and said of his Oscar win: “I don’t take this for granted.”

The Titanic actor knew he had the world’s attention and made sure to make it care about something that resonated deeply with him, the urgent threat of environmental degradation.

The journal PLOS ONE published a study revealing that DiCaprio’s speech sparked a noteworthy surge in online discussions about climate change. Despite the media maintaining its usual coverage after DiCaprio’s plea, the speech triggered a record-breaking influx of tweets mentioning “climate change” or “global warming,” according to TIME.

“A single speech, at a very opportunistic time, at the Oscar ceremony, resulted in the largest increase in public engagement with climate change ever,” John Ayers of San Diego State University told The Washington Post.

Travon Free condemned police brutality at the Oscars

Travon Free, a co-winner of the Oscar for live-action short, leveraged his big moment to address police use of force at the 93rd Academy Awards.

His winning film, Two Distant Strangers, was about a man stuck in a time loop that forced him to relive a deadly run-in with a police officer.

“Today, the police will kill three people, and tomorrow the police will kill three people, and the day after that police will kill three people because on average the police in America every day kill three people,” said Free, who shared the award with Martin Desmond Roe.

Free went on to quote the late writer James Baldwin and say it was “despicable” to be indifferent to other people’s pain.

“And so I just ask that you please not be indifferent. Please don’t be indifferent to our pain.”

He not only made a powerful statement about police brutality with his winning speech but also with his attire.

The comedian and actor donned a gold and black Dolce and Gabbana suit adorned with the names of American victims of police brutality.

Inside the jacket’s lining were names including Eric Garner, Duante Wright, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and Tamir Rice, while his black Nike Air sneakers paid homage to George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and more.

Vanessa Redgrave called out “Zionist hoodlums” at the Oscars

In 1978, American actor Vanessa Redgrave won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for her role in Julia, portraying an anti-Nazi operative alongside Jane Fonda.

During filming in Paris, she resided with Palestinian students who inspired her to produce *The Palestinian,“ a documentary perceived by some as supportive of the Palestine Liberation Organisation led by Yasir Arafat, according to The New York Times.

On the promotional tour for Julia, Redgrave showcased her documentary to potential distributors. However, the Jewish Defense League strongly opposed it, threatening to boycott 20th Century Fox, the studio behind Julia, unless they disavowed Redgrave and pledged to never employ her again.

The Jewish newspaper The Herald expressed disdain for Julia, stating, “Any Jewish person who goes to see that picture ought to have his head examined,” and “You might just as well see Hitler’s girlfriend.”

After she earned her Oscar nomination, the academy president, Howard W Koch, told her “not to say anything except ‘thank you’” if she won, she wrote in her 1991 autobiography. “I told Howard I must reserve the right to say whatever I thought was right and necessary.”

Upon Redgrave’s arrival at the ceremony, members of the Jewish Defense League set fire to an effigy resembling her, while counter-protesters displayed the Palestinian flag. Throughout the scene, police sharpshooters stood watch from the roof of the venue for the ceremony.

Yet even in the face of such scrutiny, Redgrave, upon winning the award, didn’t hesitate to share her views with the world. She began by thanking academy colleagues and added, “I think that Jane Fonda and I have done the best work of our lives, and I think this was in part due to our director, Fred Zinnemann.

“You should be very proud that in the last few weeks, you have stood firm and you have refused to be intimidated by the threats of a small bunch of Zionist hoodlums whose behaviour is an insult to the stature of Jews all over the world, and their great and heroic record of struggle against fascism and oppression.”

In her autobiography, she said, “When I referred to the ‘Zionist hoodlums,’ I meant, of course, the Jewish Defense League.”

“In 30 seconds the temperature dropped to ice while she, smiling happily, descended the steps, gave me a big kiss and sat down,” Zinnemann, Julia’s director, said in his autobiography later on.

Not only did her speech get boos from the audience but another presenter was quick to rebuke her.

The academy president had this to say about the moment: “I felt sorry for Vanessa […] At the party afterwards, she was sitting all alone with just her two bodyguards. No one else would sit with her, and here it was her big night.”

This shows how speaking one’s mind on such a big stage can either get you endless applause or leave you stranded in Hollywood.

Fortunately, Redgrave’s career wasn’t severely impacted by that speech.

“Her career survived because of her stature in the industry, and people ultimately realised she was being pro-Palestinian and not anti-Israeli,” Tom O’Neil, editor and founder of the awards-themed, said. “But her speech just came across so badly — it’s a cautionary tale of the dangers of the Oscars.”

Years later, Redgrave stood firm in her stand, expressing them to The Telegraph in 2012. “You do what you feel is right. […] People get it or they don’t.”

We wish there was a Vanessa Redgrave moment at this year’s Golden Globes, or any of the award shows that will follow.