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Human rights and the Oscars


Something happened at the Academy Awards Sunday night that caught my eye and got me thinking about our current attitudes about equality and racism and human rights in general. I was supposed to write this week about the Ontario Human Rights Code (HRC) and the Accessibility for Ontarians with Disabilities Act (AODA) as per my last post. But the Oscars are much more interesting, don’t ya think?

Before I talk about what happened at the awards ceremony, let’s back up a bit. The day before the Oscars were broadcast, I had the good fortune to watch what was, in my opinion, a really great movie: The Help. Coincidentally, The Help received certain accolades from the “Academy” as well as from the audience attending the ceremony. These accolades were, part and parcel, the source of “what happened” during the ceremony.

For anyone who hasn’t seen it, the movie is set in Mississippi in the early 1960s against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. It tells poignant stories of racial segregation, mostly from the perspective of several black women. The most memorable message of the movie for me is how natural it seemed for most of the white people depicted in the movie to categorically accept the concept of racial segregation without question; the characters easily rationalized their belief in the “separate but equal” philosophy espoused by politicians of the day.

I was very moved by the movie and when it was over took comfort that we have progressed so far in our attitudes about each other. That was at least until I went outside and found a rather disturbing pamphlet that had been left on the windshield of my car parked in front of my house. Let’s say for now that its contents caused me to rethink just how far we have come in the area of human rights. (More about the pamphlet and its controversial contents in a later post.)

Back to the Oscars and my decision to talk with you about the Academy Awards instead of something important like the HRC and the AODA. I started thinking that before we talk about concrete issues like laws and policies and procedures, we should talk about attitudes and values and belief systems and how these are the starting places for any discussion on equality and respect for human rights.

So what happened that was so noteworthy? Octavia Spencer received a standing ovation for her award for Best Supporting Actress in The Help. Why did the audience react that way? I’m not sure; you’d have to ask the people in the audience. To me it was very obvious that the audience was expressing something at that moment. The only other standing ovation was for an 82-year-old (Canadian) white guy (Christopher Plummer) who had finally won his first Oscar.

I bet you were hoping that by this point I would have shared with you why I think what happened was so important. Sorry to disappoint, but that is just my opinion, my reaction. What’s more interesting and relevant is what you think.

Your view

  • Did you particularly notice that Octavia Spencer received a standing ovation?
  • Do you share the sentiments of the audience?
  • What exactly are those sentiments?
  • Do you think award ceremonies make any statement on the general state of our society?
  • Do you think that award ceremonies (and most of television) are a delightful time to escape reality and forget about serious issues?

Let’s talk a little about our opinions and attitudes and in two weeks I will get back to the HRC and the AODA!

Andrew Lawson
Learn don’t Litigate.

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Andrew Lawson

Trainer and advisor at Learn Don't Litigate
Andrew Lawson is a human rights and health and safety trainer and advisor, currently consulting to both the federal and Ontario governments. Since 1996, he has conducted extensive legal research in the areas of human rights and occupational health and safety law. He has worked in the people management business for over 25 years. Read more
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2 thoughts on “Human rights and the Oscars
  • Thanks, Jill. I’m curious to know why Octavia Spencer got a standing ovation for her “lesser” award in contrast to some of the “higher” awards. Was the audience sending a message?

  • J Malleck says:

    I agree, a more fun topic than the AODA. And yes, why do we give standing ovations? I have been to the theatre and felt tremendous pressure to stand up and clap when those around me are doing so, even though I didn’t for a minute feel the performance was up to a standing ovation. Having said that, what harm can come from being supportive to anyone, anytime anyway? I read with horror that Whitney Houston was booed by an audience the night she met Bobby Brown – and I wonder if that was the beginning of the end for her? So I stand and clap.