Actor Joaquin Phoenix gratefully accepted his Best Actor award from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Sunday night. Then he dressed down the awards system — and the industry — for sending a “clear message to people of colour” that they’re “not welcome here.”
He spoke for minutes to a dead-silent audience that included fellow nominees Adam Driver and Saoirse Ronan before listeners erupted in cheers and applause.
“The BAFTAs have already been very supportive of my career and I’m deeply appreciative,” Phoenix began at the awards event at the Royal Albert Hall in London, where he was honoured for his leading role in “Joker.”
“But I have to say I also feel conflicted because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege,” he added. “I think that we send a very clear message to people of colour that you’re not welcome here.”
Phoenix said it wasn’t a “self-righteous” criticism. “I’m ashamed to say that I’m part of the problem,” he added, because “I have not done everything in my power to ensure that the sets I work on are inclusive.”
But he also said the problem was more than simply pushing for “multicultural” sets. “I think that we have to really do the hard work to truly understand systemic racism,” Phoenix added.
It’s the “obligation of the people that have created and perpetuate and benefit from a system of oppression to be the ones that dismantle it, so that’s on us,” he concluded.
The lack of diversity in the film awards in Britain — and across the pond — is a perennial issue.
The chair of BAFTA’s film committee Marc Samuelson early last month said this year’s lineup of acting award nominees represented an “infuriating lack of diversity.”
Emma Baehr, BAFTA’s director of awards, told The Hollywood Reporter that while the academy would “have liked to have seen more diversity in the nominations, it does continue to be an industry-wide issue.”
Cynthia Erivo, the lone actor of colour nominated for the Oscars this year for her leading role as abolitionist Harriet Tubman in the film “Harriet,” refused a request to sing at the BAFTA ceremony because of the lack of diversity.
Her appearance isn’t “something that can be thrown in as a party trick,” she complained in an interview with Extra last month. “I work hard, and every single person of colour who is working in these films this year has worked really hard, and there are many of them who deserve to be celebrated,” she emphasized.
The issue is bound to come up again next Sunday at the Oscars, which Phoenix and Erivo will attend as favourites to win the Best Actor and Best Actress awards.
As for the other top BAFTA picks, the Best Actress award went to Renee Zellweger for “Judy.” Brad Pitt won for Best Supporting Actor for “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood,” and Laura Dern grabbed the Best Supporting Actress nod for “Marriage Story.” The Best Film award went to “1917.”
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