By Gary D. Rhodes.
Some on planet earth were ready to hear Littlefeather. Too many in Hollywood were not, alas, thus tarnishing the tinsel in Tinseltown.”
Sacheen Littlefeather, the civil rights activist and actor booed by many attendees at the 1973 Academy Awards, has passed away at the age of 75. Let us please applaud her bravery, her tenacity, and her kindness of spirit, applause she deserved to hear decades ago.
It is difficult to express how much Littlefeather means to Native Americans, including myself. She served as an inspiration, a beacon in the darkness of film and media, particularly for those of us in the industry.
Flashback to a different era of American culture and politics, and of Hollywood film and fame: Marlon Brando portrayed the title character in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972). Don Corleone made offers that couldn’t be refused. By contrast, Brando made an offer to Hollywood elite that was not only refused, but also publicly scorned.
Brando decided not to attend the Academy Awards in 1973, just as he decided not to accept the Oscar for Best Actor. Instead, he asked Sacheen Littlefeather to attend on his behalf, thus allowing Native America to have a voice.
Littlefeather took the stage that night, addressing the world. She explained that Brando couldn’t accept the honor because of “the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry,” and because of the tragedy at Wounded Knee.
Some on planet earth were ready to hear Littlefeather. Too many in Hollywood were not, alas, thus tarnishing the tinsel in Tinseltown.
As early as 1911, an American film critic wrote, “The Indian, howling and scalping, killing and burning, is to a normal human mind a horrible and repulsive sight. We have had quite enough of him in moving pictures.” But filmmakers and audiences hadn’t had enough. The racist stereotypes continued onscreen, decade after decade.
Taking lessons from Littlefeather and Brando, we should acknowledge that other people have stories to tell, and other people still need to be aware that other people have stories to tell.
We must confront questions about history and culture, as well as their depiction in the cinema, including who really was the hero and who was the villain, who was civilized and who was not.
Sadly, there is little question about the punishment received by those who speak out in favor of racial justice.
As the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences admitted in August of this year, Littlefeather was “professionally boycotted, personally attacked and harassed, and discriminated against.”
In 1973, Brando bemoaned the behavior of his colleagues in the film community. “They should have at least had the courtesy to listen to her,” he rightly said.
Those in attendance represented some of the most famous and powerful people in the world of cinema, and far too many of them behaved like spoiled children, indeed, racist children, even though some of those same people viewed themselves as progressive.
Sacheen Littlefeather was a wise and wonderful person, someone many of us admire greatly. She took the abuse that otherwise might have befallen us.
After all, despite the disrespect shown her in 1973, Littlefeather concluded her speech in 1973 hoping that, in the future, ‘our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.’”
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences also proved itself wise this year, in its extension of an apology to her.
Was it overdue? Yes. But as Littlefeather kindly observed, “We Indians are very patient people – it’s only been fifty years.”
I praise David Rubin and the Academy for their wisdom, just as I praise Littlefeather’s grace and perseverance in the face of tyranny.
An apology made, and an apology accepted. Here is a lesson as powerful as any that might be taught.
Boos greeted Sacheen Littlefeather decades ago. Now let the applause commence for her legacy. Reconciliation is as wonderful in real life as it is in reel life.
After all, despite the disrespect shown her in 1973, Littlefeather concluded her speech in 1973 hoping that, in the future, “our hearts and our understandings will meet with love and generosity.”
Hollywood and the world can learn much from Sacheen Littlefeather’s legacy.
Gary D. Rhodes, Ph.D., filmmaker, poet and Full Professor of Media Production at Oklahoma Baptist University, is the author (with William M. [Bill] Kaffenberger) of Becoming Dracula – Vol. 1 (BearManor Media, 2021), Consuming Images: Film Art and the American Television Commercial (co-authored with Robert Singer, Edinburgh University Press, 2020), Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema (IAP, 2012), The Perils of Moviegoing in America (Bloomsbury, 2012) and The Birth of the American Horror Film (Edinburgh University Press, 2018), as well as the editor of such anthologies as The Films of Joseph H. Lewis (Wayne State University Press, 2012) and The Films of Budd Boetticher (Edinburgh University Press, 2017). Rhodes is also the writer-director of such documentary films as Lugosi: Hollywood’s Dracula (1997) and Banned in Oklahoma (2004).