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.
The statement was greeted coldly, both by the Academy and those in attendance. Those behind the awards were not willing to allow Littlefeather to read Brando’s full 15-page statement — later published in the New York Times — on stage, so she was forced to read an impromptu version. On top of that, the audience booed her during her statement. Littlefeather discussed the aftermath in an interview with Native Times from 2010:
“It cut my career short. If it weren’t for that I’d probably have a going career. I worked for radio, for television, I was in the Screen Actor’s Guild…” she said shrugging her shoulders.
The newspaper articles printed afterwards, she said, were “just horrible. No one ever asked me my side of the story…
“I knew that I was on the right track when I got a note from Coretta King, Martin Luther King’s wife. She told me she was proud of me”
The hostility also gave rise to an urban legend. Many didn’t think Littlefeather — born Marie Louise Cruz — was a real Native American and some even went as far as to claim she was someone who Brando “dressed up” like an Indian or as Dennis Miller joked just a few years ago during a Tonight Show appearance, a stripper. None of it true and all of it offensive.
Brando would take blame during his interview with Dick Cavett shortly after the Oscars telecast according to Newsweek, claiming the boos were meant for him and noting the position he had put Littlefeather in. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her,” he tells Cavett before noting that the moment was bigger than the awards:
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.
And it’s with that remark that a connection to the current Oscars controversy is found. George Clooney can give acceptance speeches where he applauds Hollywood being ahead of the curve on social issues, but they are still human. It doesn’t make the members of the film industry immune to prejudice.
It would seem that we’re now at a point where the outcry has forced a change. Or not. 1973 seems like a long time ago and we’re still staring at a debate over race and equality in the media. As Newsweek notes, “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 explicit.”
And as New York Times critic Wesley Morris pointed out on The Bill Simmons Podcast, the real problem lies with Hollywood as a whole and not just the Academy. It’s the views toward race and ethnicity that shape “the worth” of the art:
“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?”
So far it doesn’t seem like #OscarsSoWhite will have a Littlefeather moment. But it possibly doesn’t need one given the response we’ve seen so far, with a sustained commentary on the larger issues — like the type mentioned by Morris above — having more effect.
Still, much like the outcry we saw in 1996, the Littlefeather incident is trivia now. It had its effect, but we’re still here debating diversity in 2016. Will the threat of a boycott change our current situation or will the Oscars’ planned changes slowly change the tides? It will be interesting to see how this plays out, and how moviegoers in the decades to come will look back at what we did about these issues in 2016.