Joaquin Phoenix’s BAFTA speech was great, but let’s focus on the action
At the British Academy Film Awards, Phoenix called out the film industry that doesn’t seem to have room for anyone who isn’t a white man
A good speech is great.
But if there’s no action behind it, all it becomes is words spoken, tweeted about, praised and that’s it. And we deserve more than a lovely group of words.
Now we’ve come to expect to hear a great speech at Hollywood’s top award shows. The granddaddy of them all, the Academy Awards, comes on Feb. 9 and odds are excellent that Joaquin Phoenix will walk away with the best actor award for his dark and deeply disturbed portrayal of comic book foe The Joker in Joker.
You likely won’t find a critic who will say otherwise.
What happens before that big day is a constant buildup — while the predicted talent is collecting their shiny baubles at various awards shows, they’re progressively giving us better speeches. Speeches at award shows are like postgame news conferences. They’re the only chance we have to hear from someone who is winning Hollywood’s MVP award. This is their moment to shine.
And if you make a great speech, one that pierces the current political environment, highlights something problematic and calls out the very industry that’s awarding you, that joint will go viral. This brings us back to Phoenix.
During his acceptance speech at the British Academy Film Awards (BAFTA) on Sunday, the actor called out the film industry that doesn’t seem to have room for anyone who isn’t a white man.
For context, the BAFTAs are considered to be the British version of the Oscars — so many of the same important people who will be in the room on Feb. 9 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood were there that night. And if they weren’t, they have consumed that speech by now.
In it, Phoenix looked out into the crowd and pointed out all that was wrong.
“I feel very honored and privileged to be here tonight. BAFTAs have always been supportive of my career and I’m deeply appreciative,” the actor, 45, said. “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.”
Confused? You shouldn’t be. Once again, the biggest story line this awards season is the lack of recognition of people of color and women, remarkable in a season that produced some excellent work by black women.
In the best acting categories, there is no person of color nominated for an Oscar. There are no women nominated for best director. There is no diversity in an industry that prides itself on valuing progressive ideology.
What Phoenix and filmmaker Todd Phillips did right in Joker is give us a New York that looks like New York. His love interest was a black woman (Zazie Beetz) and his mental health care workers were black women. A man who signed out records was a black man (Brian Tyree Henry) and the streets and the background players were a culturally diverse assortment of the people who you see walking through the streets of a metropolis like New York.
“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 and our industry and in ways that we benefit from,” Phoenix said.
Phoenix said that he didn’t believe that “anyone wants a handout or preferential treatment. Although that’s what we give ourselves every year. I think that people just want to be acknowledged and appreciated and respected for their work. This is not a self-righteous condemnation, because I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem.”
He also told the crowd that he hasn’t done all that he can do to wield his power to make sure the sets he works on are inclusive.
Bam. Did that resonate?
Because that’s what we need to focus on. The action.
We’ve come to expect women speaking out on the gender issues — Regina King’s captivating best supporting actress award at last year’s Golden Globes (she later went on to win an Oscar) was perfect. In it, she laid out her game plan in front of Hollywood elite for how she would be making sure that women were working on projects that she was involved in.
“The reason why we do this is because we understand our microphones are big and we’re speaking for everyone,” King said near the end of her speech for her role in Barry Jenkins’ If Beale Street Could Talk. “I’m going to use my platform right now to say, in the next two years I am making a vow to make sure everything I produce is 50 percent women and I challenge anyone out there who is in a position of power — not just in our industry, in all industries.”
But it’s not enough that women — and especially black women — come and save the world once again. We need more people like Phoenix to be loud and use their muscle in this town to ensure that many voices and diverse representations are invited to have seats at the table.
Words are brilliant. And now you have our attention, Mr. Phoenix.
And that warm-up speech was great.
But when you grace the stage back home on Sunday, give us more of that same energy. And tell us what you’re going to do to make it happen.
And then do it.