Joaquin Phoenix's white male saviour speech at the Oscars was painful to watch

This isn't what standing up for oppressed groups actually looks like

Harriet Hall
Monday 10 February 2020 18:27
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Oscars 2020: Joaquin Phoenix makes emotional speech about injustice

If you watched the 2014 Academy Awards, you might not remember exactly which film won in each category, but you probably do remember Lupita Nyong’o standing, tears in her eyes, clutching the 13 ½ inch tall, 24-carat, gold-plated bronze statuette in her fist, staring at it admiringly and announcing that she hopes it can “remind me and every little child that no matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.”

Similarly, perhaps you didn’t get around to watching Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, despite all your best intentions, but you likely will have watched Patricia Arquette calling for “wage equality once and for all” while accepting the award for best supporting actress in 2015.

Often just as captivating as the films themselves – sometimes even more so – acceptance speeches have become the ultimate soapbox moment for actors, and news stories in their own right. Last year, almost 30m people tuned in to watch the Academy Awards. With a platform like that, actors have the chance to have their voices heard, as opposed to speaking lines written for them into screenplays – and increasingly, many are happy to take full advantage of opportunity.

Here’s the good part: From systemic sexism and racism to the rights of indigenous Americans and the climate crisis, celebrities have long used the acceptance speech as a chance to align themselves with a movement that matters to them. And this year was no different. Following a virtually laughable paucity of female nominees in the Golden Globes (despite several worthy contenders in the top categories) and all-white listings in the top BAFTA categories, awards season this year has been dominated by talk of when the industry will catch up with the world it professes to represent.

When South Korean director Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite was announced as the winner of the best film gong this year, many were excited that finally, one of this season’s awards ceremonies – and the most important one, too – was recognising art, not prioritising privilege.

One actor in particular has been vocal about the industry’s shortcomings. Joaquin Phoenix used his BAFTA acceptance speech to speak about “systemic racism”, admitting that he “has not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I was on are inclusive”. Reaction to his speech was predominantly positive, with Harriet star Cynthia Erivo – the only black actor who was nominated across all acting categories in the 2020 Academy Awards – saying how pleased she was that Phoenix used his platform to raise up people of colour, because, “people like me, the black girls of the world, the black men of the world, are saying it consistently, but we’re not always being heard”.

While accepting his award for best actor at the Oscars last night, Phoenix continued his campaign of equality – but this time throwing a few other causes into the mix.

“I think at times we feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes,” Phoenix said. “But for me, I see commonality. I think, whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice.”

Without expanding on his apparent box-ticking of racism or women’s rights, appearing just to drop those in as a precursor to his main gripe, Phoenix then launched into a diatribe against the dairy industry. “We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow and steal her baby, even though her cries of anguish are unmistakeable. Then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal,” he said.

It is a galling juxtaposition. Perhaps if he’d chosen just this one cause to champion, instead of lumping everything together, it wouldn’t have stung quite as much as it did. But to speak of the injustices of racism, of the experiences of people of colour whose history is steeped in slavery, then to discuss women, whose rights to bodily autonomy are still being challenged by anti-abortion laws across the States, and to mention queer rights, when members of the gay community have been beaten, criminalised and banned from marrying their partners — to utter these causes in the same breath as milking cows really only highlights Phoenix’s already startlingly obvious white male privilege.

To add insult to injury, Phoenix ended his speech by quoting a song lyric written by his brother, River: “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow”. While obviously personally meaningful (Phoenix’s voice cracked as he spoke his late brother’s words), the subject matter turned the moment into an example of a white saviour complex that was almost unbearable to watch.

All this, of course, was said during an acceptance speech for a film that was celebrated but also widely condemned as problematic. Joker sees a mentally ill man, unable to access his medication and left behind by the state, go on a furious killing spree. Comparisons to how white and brown perpetrators of such crimes are treated differently by both law enforcement and the media, discussions of toxic masculinity and concerns about clichéd mental health portrayals were among the many criticisms the film faced online.

When Frances McDormand used her acceptance speech for best actress in 2018 for her performance in Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri to take a political stand, she passionately and furiously promised to enforce the use of inclusion riders when she accepted roles – a move that will make a tangible difference to the industry when she works. What, exactly, is Phoenix promising beyond making himself the poster boy for his male guilt?

It is a risk for a celebrity to use their platform to make a political point. Taylor Swift’s Netflix documentary proves this – the singer was discouraged from aligning herself from any movement as her management believed it could compromise her success. But Phoenix is far past that. This is a man with a career that spans countless critically acclaimed roles who has just swept the floor at awards season. He could have afforded to push the boat out a little.

The sentiment at the heart of Phoenix’s speech matters. People in positions of power have the privilege and the platform to speak out for oppressed communities – and they should do so. But here’s a tip for any straight white men wanting to stand with the gay community, women and people of colour: Don’t jump to compare marginalised groups to bovine animals. It sends rather the wrong message.

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