When Joaquin Phoenix speaks, Hollywood trembles

by Raneen El-Barbarawi / Staff Reporter

Phoenix accepts the Oscar for Lead Actor at the 92nd Academy Awards. Photo courtesy of the New York Times.

It’s no secret that Hollywood has been known for its structural racism in casting negative portrayal of minorities and other marginalized groups in films and its vilifying of Middle Eastern cultures. Film directors and other top Hollywood executives have been repeatedly called out for exploiting minority actors to gain profit under the guise of “representation,” yet also play naive to their blatant stereotyping of different cultures.

Much of the Hollywood film industry turns a blind eye to the harm its actually causing to people of color and other minority groups, and steers away from recognizing the industry’s long history of discrimination and actually pushing for change. Because of the slow and seemingly never-ending controversy in Hollywood, a significant portion of actors, producers and directors fail to speak out against the injustices in the film industry unless the movement is widespread enough amongst Hollywood’s top stars. 

However, Joaquin Phoenix was not one of these actors.

Instead, he decided to speak on a series of controversial issues that most actors would shy away from at some of the largest entertainment events of the year. At both the BAFTAs and the Academy Awards ceremonies, Phoenix took home the top award for best leading actor for his characterization of the sinister clown villain in Todd Phillip’s “Joker.” But his portrayal of the Joker, despite its merit, was not the main reason why all eyes were on Phoenix on the night of each ceremony.

To say that he should be credited for his speeches would be an understatement. This is because he gave a voice to the voiceless, or in Phoenix’s words, “I think the greatest gift this has given me is to use my voice for the voiceless.”

It’s not typical to see a white, male actor using his platform to emphasize the crises happening in the world and within the industry. But, Phoenix was determined to make it known that racism, climate change and sexism are real issues that people, especially Hollywood elites, must not ignore. His selfless, humble speech at the 2020 Academy Awards ceremony is one that could be applauded for eternity. 

Additionally, Phoenix’s speech at the BAFTAS was somewhat unexpected, and a shock to many of his Hollywood peers. His powerful speech spoke on the systematic racism that audiences see regularly in the film and entertainment industry. 

“I think we send a very clear message to people of color, who have contributed so much to our industry in ways that we benefit from… that they’re not welcome here,” said Phoenix. “I don’t think anyone wants a handout, I think people just want to be acknowledged and appreciated for their work.”

“This is not a self-righteous condemnation because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem,” Phoenix said at the 2020 BAFTAs. Photo courtesy of Variety.

He then recognized his own faults in the systematic racism, and claimed that each participant in the sphere of Hollywood, regardless of status, is all a part of this problem that desperately needs changing.

“It’s more than having sets that are multicultural. I think we have to do the hard work to truly understand systematic racism. I think it is the obligation of people who have created, perpetuated and benefited from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us,” said Phoenix.

He then used his platform even further to speak out on the cruel treatment of animals, the harsh reality of a decaying environment and other injustices throughout the world that people must recognize and change. 

“Whether we’re talking about gender rights, queer rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustices, one nation has the right to dominate, control, use and exploit another with impunity,” said Phoenix. “We’re guilty of an egocentric worldview, the belief that we’re the center of the universe. We feel entitled to take resources and artificially inseminate a cow and when she gives birth, we steal her baby.” 

Phoenix also used these ideas to propose a sort of blanket solution for the massive issues that continue to rock today’s society. 

“I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up,” said Phoenix. “But, as human beings, at our best, we’re so inventive, creative and ingenious and when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all human beings and the environment.”

His optimism was very touching when he said, “but when we help each other grow and educate each other and guide each other towards redemption, that is the best of humanity.”

Still, nobody can expect to see massive systemic change in Hollywood overnight.

However, despite his peers who dreaded the day this would come, Phoenix, who is a Puerto Rican and vegan himself, certainly set the stepping stones to a discussion that will now be spoken about in the industry. 

Indeed, Phoenix deserves the respect he earned.



Categories: Arts & Entertainment

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