Culture

The Surprising Takeaway from the 2015 Oscars—And Why Sean Penn's Joke Fell Flat

Immigration, not civil rights nor rah-rah patriotism, took the stage.

Photo Credit: via youtube

Many of us expected the Oscars to open up a conversation about our nation’s identity, but it’s unlikely that we expected the conversation to be about immigration, Mexicans and cultural diversity. With two films nominated for Best Picture that drew directly on important national events—“American Sniper” and “Selma”—and with the whitest list of nominees since 1995, this round of Academy Awards seemed to be a battle between civil rights and American exceptionalism. And yet it would be a film about a middle-aged, washed-up white actor that would spark a conversation about not just the role of Mexicans in Hollywood, but about the cultural identity of our nation.

“Birdman” won four awards: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay and Best Cinematography. And there was Mexican talent behind each of those awards. But here is the weird part—if you had gone to see “Birdman” and not watched the credits, it would be likely that you would have had no idea that so much of the talent in the film had a link to Mexican culture.

So, at one level, the story of “Birdman” seems to just be a story about a great movie. Why would it lead to a conversation about national identity since the movie isn’t about those issues at all?

Well it will and it should for two reasons. First Sean Penn, who announced the Best Picture award, started the ball rolling with a comment that immediately sparked controversy: “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card?” It was meant to be a joke: Penn goes way back having worked with “Birdman” director Alejandro González Iñárritu on “21 Grams” in 2003. But, even though Inarritu later said he thought it was funny, the comment fell flat, immediately leading to a Twitter hashtag #PennDejo – a fun pun on Penn’s name and the vulgar slang term in Spanish for “dumbass” – “pendejo.” The hashtag went viral, opening up a lively forum for critics who expressed anger and frustration that this highlight moment in Iñárritu’s career had to be marred by racial coding.

Penn’s comment marked Iñárritu as not belonging, as an outsider, as an “other” that needed to be given a card by someone like Penn to work in this country. The joke only works if Iñárritu and Penn are from different groups with different social status. But Iñárritu brushed it off; he was holding his third Oscar of the night, after all. Instead he used the final moments of his Best Picture acceptance speech to claim his Mexican identity in a different way – one that was political and engaged.

Iñárritu told the audience that he wanted to dedicate the award to Mexico. In an important move that refused to separate Mexicans living in Mexico from those that live north of the border, he stated, "I pray that we can find and build a government that we deserve, and the ones that live in this country, who are a part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation."  

What makes this statement important, beyond its obvious political solidarity, is that it was uttered after winning an award for a film that had no obvious ties to a story about being Mexican or even about being an immigrant. And this leads me to my second point.

When folks railed at the “white” list of nominees they focused on only the actors, which meant that they overlooked the amazing fact that a Mexican director was nominated for the second year running for Best Director and Best Picture: Alfonso Cuarón had been nominated for “Gravity” the year before, winning Best Director. They also overlooked the fact that Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki was nominated for his seventh Academy Award, and that he was set to win his second. The reality is that there has been an ongoing rise of the presence of Mexican talent nominated for Academy awards in the past decade. There were three Mexican born directors nominated for Academy Awards in 2007: Iñárritu for “Babel,” Cuarón for “Children of Men” and Guillermo del Toro for “Pan’s Labyrinth.” The point is, that the list of nominees was white if you focused only on the nominees that were in front of the camera. But if you looked at the less visible people behind the camera, it was less white after all.

The fact that the last two Academy Awards for Best Director went to Mexicans is only half of the story. The other noteworthy feature is that their films were not overtly coded with Mexican content. These directors are proving that a person of color can have a career that transcends their marked identities – but the question is whether they can make films that are not about being Mexican while retaining their own personal identities as Mexicans. 

Tweets from those inside Mexico ranged in opinion on this, with many suggesting that the win last night had nothing to do with Mexico at all. But I’d suggest that we imagine that this new trend opens up a range of possibilities for thinking about what it means to represent a marginalized group as an artist of color. Certainly, there is room to debate whether or not these directors have been true to their past, whether they abandoned Mexico for Hollywood, whether they are privileged sellouts, etc. But such a view is too narrow and misses the reality that  Iñárritu did, indeed, dedicate his award to Mexico. And he did so right after a famous friend of his poked fun at his identity.

So maybe the Oscars were not so white after all. And perhaps they opened up a space for us to begin talking about the complicated identity politics connected to a Mexican identity that can be both invisible and easily mocked.

 

 

Sophia A. McClennen is professor of international affairs and comparative literature at Pennsylvania State University. Her latest book, co-authored with Remy M. Maisel, is, Is Satire Saving Our Nation? Mockery and American Politics. She can be found on Twitter at @mcclennen65.

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