What Marlon Brando’s Oscars Protest Says About Today’s Controversies

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This year’s controversy over diversity at the Oscars seems to be overshadowing any praise and discussion of the nominated films. It’s drawn scrutiny toward the behind-the-scenes processes of the Academy and sparked discussion from all sides of the debate. That’s a surprise for a slate of nominated films and actors that scarcely feature any people of color in the major categories for the second year in a row. It isn’t the first time the Oscars have stirred up controversy over the years or the first time the topic of race, gender, and sexuality took the headlines away from the actual awards.

There have been other instances where outside politics have taken center stage at the Oscars — Michael Moore in 2003, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon in 1993 — and there have been moments where Hollywood has been forced to look into mirror at itself — Elia Kazan’s lifetime achievement in 1999 and Brokeback Mountain‘s snub in 2006 come to mind. But few such moments have come close to the fervor of today’s controversy than the moment Sacheen Littlefeather took the stage for Marlon Brando in 1973.

Newsweek‘s Ryan Bort recently highlighted Brando’s denial of his Academy Award for The Godfather in order to shed some light on the recent threats of boycott in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. And in looking back, it’s easy to see why his efforts were both controversial and necessary.

The American Indian Movement was founded in 1968 to deal with issues related to Native Americans that had sprouted from their historical treatment and the Indian termination policies of the ’40s, ’50s, and ’60s. The group, similar to other civil rights groups at the time and the #BlackLivesMatter movement today, used the media and high-profile events to spread awareness of their cause and possibly force change. This was related to the Indians of All Tribes occupation of Alcatraz that ended in 1971, leading to the Wounded Knee incident of February 1973.

In Hollywood, Native Americans had almost always been portrayed in adversarial roles. Popular Westerns of the period usually featured Indians as enemies or savages that needed to be tamed by the heroic cowboys. Among those playing the cowboys were John Wayne who shared his real life views on Native Americans and those in AIM during his infamous 1971 Playboy interview:

I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them, if that’s what you’re asking. Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves…

I don’t know of anybody else who wants it. The fellas who were taken off it sure don’t want to go back there, including the guards. So as far as I’m concerned, I think we ought to make a deal with the Indians. They should pay as much for Alcatraz as we paid them for Manhattan. I hope they haven’t been careless with their wampum.

Wayne doesn’t stop with Native Americans in his interview, but that’s for another time. He represented one school of thought in Hollywood at the time, with Brando clearly representing another, the same one occupied by Sacheen Littlefeather. Littlefeather was at Alcatraz in 1971 with the other members of AIM. She was an unknown in Hollywood before her appearance at the Oscars, which is likely the reason why Dennis Banks and Russell Means chose Littlefeather when Brando decided he wanted to use the moment to make a statement about the Wounded Knee incident.