I don’t think very many people were surprised by Joaquin Phoenix winning Best Actor at the BAFTAs for playing the title supervillain in “Joker.” After all, he had already won at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice Awards and SAG Awards. But his speech was unexpected, and it managed to grab headlines on a web otherwise saturated with Super Bowl coverage on Sunday. Watch it above.
“I feel honored and privileged to be here,” said Phoenix. “But I have to say that I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege. I think that we send a very clear message to people of color that you’re not welcome here. I think that’s the message that we’re sending to people that have contributed so much to our medium.”
The BAFTAs came under fire for their disproportionately white nominations, especially in acting categories where no people of color were nominated despite films like “Us,” “The Farewell,” “Hustlers,” “Parasite” and “Harriet” among the year’s high-profile awards contenders. “I don’t think anyone wants a handout or preferential treatment, although that’s what we give ourselves every year,” Phoenix continued. “This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem … I think that it is the obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us.”
Will we see an encore of that speech or something like it at the Oscars, where Phoenix is likely to win again and which are almost as predominantly white as the BAFTAs were (“Harriet” star Cynthia Erivo is the only actor of color with a nomination)? I hope so. When it comes to the most meaningful political changes Hollywood can make, the call is coming from inside the house, and it’s people with greater advantages who can make those changes and are less likely to be shouted down as politically correct social justice warriors — see also Frances McDormand pushing for inclusion riders on contracts when she won Best Actress for “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” (2017).
Watching Phoenix find his voice at award shows this season has been particularly gratifying since he has been ambivalent to say the least about the whole awards song and dance, and about being in the public eye in general. But giving zero Fs — not unlike McDormand — also gives him an opportunity to say things on awards stages that are uncomfortable but true and with a sense of self-reflection, like at the Golden Globes when he pointed out to his fellow celebs that taking fewer private jets might help mitigate climate change more than a good speech. Heck, Jane Fonda even helped him get arrested during a climate protest.
So while it doesn’t seem like there will be any surprises in terms of who wins acting awards this year, I’m genuinely hopeful for something surprising, urgent and honest in a speech from an actor like Phoenix. Especially since Michelle Williams isn’t nominated this year — someone has to pick up the slack.
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