Milk Put Politics on the Podium; Got a Problem With That?

3277295389_ae05ca291a“I hate Sean Penn, keep your politics to yourself Mr. Penn, actors are entertainers not politicians. Sean Penn is a jerk, he cheated on his beautiful wife last year with a model, why… WHY did the academy give him an Oscar…Down with Gay rights! Down with Sean Penn. Mickey Rourke should have gotten the oscar instead.” — E! commenter on Sean Penn’s Oscar win for his portrayal of Harvey Milk in Milk.

It was a big night for the cast and crew of Milk, but an even bigger night for gays and lesbians everywhere, as Best Actor winner Sean Penn and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black used their Oscar wins to speak directly to a prime time audience of millions about gay rights, fairness and equality.

Black, his Oscar resting on the podium, did the usual Oscar thanks and then spoke directly to “gay and lesbian kids,” saying, “No matter what everyone tells you, God does love you … very soon, I promise you, you will have equal rights federally across this great nation of ours.” Penn, calling the Academy, “you commie, homo-loving son of a guns,” said, “I think it’s a good time for those who voted for the ban against gay marriage to reflect – to sit and reflect – and anticipate their great shame and the shame in their grandchildren’s eyes if they continue that way in their support. We have to have equal rights for everyone.”

Way to go.

Politics and the Oscars have a long and rocky history together. In 1973 Marlon Brando sent an actor posing as an American Indian to “refuse” his award for The Godfather to bring attention to the mistreatment of Indians in film. Vanessa Redgrave used her ’78 Oscar speech to drum up support for Palestine, in ’93 it was Richard Gere and Tibet and of course, who can forget Michael Moore’s 2003 speech that ended with “Shame on you, Mr. Bush! Shame on you!”?

Usually, these speeches are mentioned as a way of deriding Hollywood’s knee-jerk liberalism and truthfully, most of them have been cringe-inducing exercises in political vanity. This year and this year’s speeches, were unique—and even more so, the films themselves, show that Hollywood is beginning to find it’s own authentic political voice.

Sean Penn’s Oscar acceptance speech:

Of the five films nominated for Best Picture this year, only one, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, was not overtly political. Slumdog Millionaire, dealt with globalization and social inequality in Mumbai, Frost/Nixon dealt with the corruption and arrogance of Richard Nixon, The Reader deftly examines the culpability and responsibility of German’s involved in the holocaust and Milk, of course, tells the story of a pioneering gay rights leader slain before his time.

For all Hollywood knows, it might be a fad, and next year, Space Monster Love Affair will win Best Picture, but increasingly, the movie industry is feeling comfortable putting politics front and center in its films, reflecting and – perhaps – prodding a society in the midst of great social change.

image4820432gAnd so, last night’s speeches didn’t ring as vainglorious or pompous, but necessary. Could you imagine an Oscar acceptance speech for Milk that didn’t include politics? The film, for all its flaws, calls on anyone who sees it to speak up and use their voice to express their beliefs and both Penn and Black did so eloquently.

If you lost your Oscar betting pool, see if you can find someone who will wager with you that Bill O’Reilly and Fox News won’t use the speeches as an opportunity to lambaste Hollywood actors for having opinions when they should just “shut up and act.” Heck, even the gay Republicans are bemoaning Penn’s win, saying:

“Sean Penn gave the worst speech, unnecessarily politicizing the event. If he wanted to make the case for gay marriage, he would have done better not to attack its opponents and make a positive argument instead. When Penn reads someone else’s lines, he does a remarkable job. He’s not so good with his own. While I grant he delivered an Oscar-worthy performance in Milk, he did little to endear himself to most Americans who go to the movies.”

What the “entertainers are meant to entertain” crowd fail to understand is that all art is political, whether it be the environmental message of Wall-E or the deeply-coded racial critiques of Douglas Sirk’s melodramas.

Dustin Lance Black’s Oscar acceptance speech:

Heck, even Transformers is a reflection of post 9/11 anxieties and it’s as far from an Oscar nomination as any mainstream film could get. Shakespeare told us that “the purpose of playing” is to “hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image…” Some films do it well, some are preachy, some of them betray a politics their filmmakers may not even be aware of, but the politics of the time are woven into each frame of celluloid.

In Hollywood, everyone fears the message movie. Michael Eisner, when he was running Paramount, sent out a memo to the studio saying, “We have no obligation to make history. We have no obligation to make art. We have no obligation to make a statement. To make money is our only objective.” While the days of Eisner are long gone in Hollywood, his maxim is still standard operating procedure, but it’s short-sighted.

Why do people make movies? Why do people write them and act in them? Fame seekers can be found in every industry, be it sports or actuarial science. It’s easy to be cynical about the Oscars, festooned with borrowed diamonds and Joan Rivers, but underneath it all, the desire to create movies is the desire to reach out and share your view of the world with others.

In Lance’s case, it was born out of being a Mormon kid living in Texas who first heard Harvey Milk’s words and had hope—and a desire to share that same feeling with the world. In him, and in Milk, art and politics are indistinguishable from each other. Why do we go to the movies? Well, to be entertained, of course, but the entertainers behind them are people with hopes, dreams and beliefs—and it’s those very qualities that they bring to their work that make the films we watch so entertaining.

For years, Hollywood has tried to separate the performer or the artist from their politics. This year, not only in Milk, but also in Slumdog Millionaire, we saw the uncommon power of film that combines what Tony Kushner calls the three keys to great drama: poetry, politics and popcorn—and if you’ve got a problem with it, why don’t you go win your own damn Oscar?