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Oscar Diversity Protests Through the Decades

On April 10, 1962, Variety ran a story headlined “Crasher and Pickets Enliven Oscar Show,” about people protesting Hollywood’s lack of diversity. This was 54 years ago, proving that some things unfortunately haven’t changed.

Will anybody “enliven” this year’s Academy Awards? Rev. Al Sharpton and the National Action Network are among those who have vowed to protest Sunday. But TV viewers won’t see them because they will be several blocks away from the Dolby Theatre, in an area designated for protesters. Crashers are unlikely because security has become extremely tight for the Oscars.

The Dolby will be a well-protected fortress. Back in 1962, things were very different — but, sadly, very similar. Oscargoers at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium saw picketers from an organization called Hollywood Race Relations Group, led by Caleb Peterson, protesting the lack of inclusion in Hollywood films. One picketer carried the sign, “All Negroes Want a Break.”

Outside the Auditorium, 12 individuals from HRRG were arrested for trespassing. The group sued the Santa Monica Police Dept. and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, claiming wrongful arrest because they were on public property. The police countered that they were trespassing, since they stepped on the red carpet.

Variety reported that there were 97 Santa Monica officers on duty. This year, there are more than 500 LAPD members, not to mention other armed officers, guard dogs and multiple other security measures.

It was the year “West Side Story” won as best picture. The film featured Natalie Wood as the Puerto Rican Maria; then, as now, Hollywood casting was race-bending. On the other hand, the film’s 10 wins included supporting actress Rita Moreno, who became the fifth Latino/Hispanic actor nominated for an Oscar and the second winner (after Jose Ferrer).

Even if this year’s show is not disrupted by crashers, it’s safe to assume some winners will hit hot-button topics in their acceptance speeches; that has been a longtime Oscar tradition.

On March 28, 1973, Variety reported about the boos and applause for Sacheen Littlefeather, who read a statement by Marlon Brando declining to accept his prize for “The Godfather.” Brando wrote that he didn’t want to demean or embarrass anyone involved with Oscar, but wanted to protest Hollywood “for degrading the Indian and making a mockery of his character.”

Jumping ahead in the Variety Archives, Ted Johnson reported on March 22, 1996, that Rev. Jesse Jackson had called for Oscar-night picketing “to protest the dearth of minorities in Hollywood as well as the failure of some movies and TV shows to reflect diversity.”

Jackson cited the fact that there was only one black individual nominated for an Oscar that year, in the short-subject category.

The original plan was to picket the ceremonies at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, but Jackson instead encouraged nationwide pickets of outlets for ABC, which carried the rites. Jackson added, “We know that the Oscars cannot be our central focus in that it is the end of a process. At the beginning of this process is studios. In those studios are the highest executive producers who determine the directors, and scripts and writers and stars.”

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