Brow Beat

Instead of an Oscars Boycott, Spike Lee and Jada Pinkett Smith Should Do What Eddie Murphy Did in ’88

Eddie Murphy at the 1988 Academy Awards.

Still from YouTube.

In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, many prominent Hollywood movers and shakers of color have openly criticized the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, as well as Hollywood as a whole, for its lack of progress on diversity. Some, like Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee (who received an Honorary Academy Award last fall), have gone so far as to announce that they will be boycotting the Oscars ceremony in protest of this year’s all-white nominees.

While the intention behind a boycott is surely good, I don’t think that’s enough. As I’ve already expressed via social media, I’d much rather see people disrupt the ceremony rather than skip it all together—it’s notable that so far, the most prominent calls for addressing diversity have come from people of color in the industry, not their white peers. (The silence of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, and other nominees—who have been very outspoken on other social issues, sometimes clumsily—in this regard means that the absence of Smith and Lee may not resonate as widely as it should.) People of color within the industry should show up on the red carpet and as presenters, and use those opportunities to call out Hollywood right then and there—to force them into discomfort.

Sort of like what Eddie Murphy did at the 1988 Academy Awards. Presenting the Best Picture Award for that evening, the star, then at the very peak of his fame, first took a moment to relay to the audience his hesitancy to show up to the ceremony at all. At first, he explains, he told his white manager that he didn’t want to go because the academy rarely ever recognizes black people in film—citing Hattie McDaniel, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Gossett, Jr., he cracks a joke about how there are black winners only about every 20 years. Obviously, his manager convinced him to go, but Murphy still got in a critique on Hollywood’s biggest night: “I just want you to know, I’mma give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society, and we will not bring up the rear anymore, and I want you to recognize us.”

Did Murphy’s comments awaken the academy to its exclusionariness and embolden it to change? Well, nearly 30 years later, we’re still having this same conversation. But even though many things remain the same, the climate is very different from what it was then, and I’m optimistic that things are moving—slowly—in the right direction, considering how big the discussion around #OscarsSoWhite has become. If those Hollywood insiders of all backgrounds take note of Murphy’s actions and act on them come Oscar night next month—and do so in a way that isn’t flippant or condescending—maybe we’ll finally see an industry forced to reckon with itself, once and for all.

Read more in Slate about the 2016 Oscars.