As the #OscarsSoWhite controversy hit the internet last month, a grainy video clip from 1973 went viral. It showed Native American actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather refuse the Oscar for Best Actor on behalf of Marlon Brando. At the height of his fame, the actor asked Littlefeather to go in his place. When Roger Moore and Liv Ullmann announced he'd won the Academy Award for his part in The Godfather, the then-27 year old took to the stage.
"I'm representing Marlon Brando this evening and he has asked me to tell you… that he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award," Littlefeather said. "And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry."
Forty-three years on, Littlefeather reflects on the seismic moment. "I was the first person of color in 1973 to make or utilize that [The Oscars] as a political platform, to tell people that we don't have jobs in the industry, that we don't have people of color working in unison there among the industry itself—that we have a stereotype that we have to deal with."
I had only 60 seconds or less and I kept my promise. Remember, I was making a profound statement: I did not use my fist, I did not use profanity, I used grace and elegance and quiet strength as my tools."
During the ceremony, the audience simultaneously booed and cheered, with cries of "Let her speak." "I was escorted [off] by two security people who kept everyone at a distance from me so that I was protected. I remember some people making some very stereotypical sounds," she says, imitating a war cry, "and tomahawk chops towards me afterwards. And I just blessed them and went on."
Speaking to Littlefeather on the phone from her home in San Francisco, it's hard not to be shocked and a little frustrated by her grace in the face of such racism. "You have to understand ignorance you have to understand where it comes from—people are only a product of their education, they're only a product of where they come from. So you have to bless them and move forward."
As well as shining a light on racism in the film industry, Littlefeather's speech drew attention to the ongoing siege in Wounded Knee, Dakota. 200 members of the American Indian Movement had occupied the town, demanding the US government reopen treaty talks. Various law enforcement agencies surrounded the area, including the FBI. Shots were fired, two activists were killed, and one federal agent was shot and paralyzed. The armed conflict went on for months.
"They had a media blackout going on at the 1973 standoff… They were going to take away the Indian movement leaders, to a place like Guantanamo Bay, never to be heard from again," Littlefeather states. "And when Marlon Brando utilized the Academy Award platform… it broke the media boycott. And all the world's media came to Wounded Knee. So the FBI was madder than hell at me."
The consequences of Littlefeather's speech were immediate and long lasting. Before she took to the Oscars stage, Sacheen was an actor as well as an activist, a member of the Screen Actors Guild and AFTRA (American Federation of Television and Radio Artists), with radio shows in San Francisco. Her ambition was to act. Her activism put an end to that dream. "I was told this by numerous people within the industry, that they could not hire me or their productions would be shut down."
Littlefeather sees clear parallels with her Oscars speech and the #OscarsSoWhite movement, which found one figurehead in Jada Pinkett Smith, the Magic Mike XXL actress who is boycotting this year's ceremony as a result of its lack of diversity. She says that she sent an email to Pinkett Smith thanking her for "courage and words of truth."
Pinkett Smith wrote back to thank her in return, adding that she had watched Littlefeather's Oscars speech many times. "Your speech and the position that you and Mr Brando took was a much-needed validation for my position," Littlefeather says, reading out Pinkett Smith's email response. "Thank you for being one of the brave and courageous, to help pave the way for those of us who need a reminder of the importance to simply be true."
I ask Littlefeather how she feels about actors of color still feeling the need to protest the Oscars. "When you look at the board of governors of the Academy Awards, they are elected until they die—like the Supreme Court of the United States. If this was a marriage, there would be no divorce court." Why are the Oscars still racist? "Look at it, you have a majority here in the United States of the Board of Governors of the Academy Awards, which are dominant society white men—excluding women, excluding people of color."
There is, however, one bright spot for Littlefeather at this year's Oscars: The Revenant, Alejandro G. Iñárritu's grisly story of frontier justice, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. I assumed she wouldn't have seen it, but she loved it. The film shows DiCaprio striking up a friendship with a Pawnee tribesman in the middle of his quest for revenge, though its depiction of a brutal rape of a Native American girl has also drawn criticism.
"I thought it was done very well, and I thought [Dicaprio's] acting was superb," Littlefeather says. "I think that the person that I saw it with, she had to hide her eyes during [a] portion of the film—she couldn't take the bear attack! So did I! It was horrible! And when he hid in the horse… Well, that was an Indian thing. You hide in the horse to keep yourself warm during a snowstorm, you know, you take the guts out."
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I was pretty stunned by that bit too, I say. She laughs: "Well you're from England, they don't serve tea in there!"
With Littlefeather, you're always halfway between laughing and crying. For a sexagenarian who not only suffered the injustice of Hollywood's institutional racism but faced its wrath when she spoke out—she's hilarious. "I can't wait to see a Native American sitcom on television and laugh my butt off seeing it because I know how humorous we are as a group of people. And I know how our humor has helped us survive as a race—I know how funny we really are and how talented we really are."
Littlefeather is still very much an activist, and her message is something that still resonates with today's younger Oscar protesters. "Back in 1973 my mother told me, 'Sacheen, you are way beyond your years,'" she remembers. "Mom, you could be right. I'm 69 years old going on 70, and I'm looking at this from a young person's eyes."