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Social Justice Advocacy Takes Center Stage at 2015 Oscars; Some Jokes Fall Flat

John Legend (L) and Common accept the Academy Award for Best Original Song for "Glory" (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

John Legend (L) and Common accept the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Glory” (Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images)

Oscar winners, nominees and presenters used the global platform of the 2015 Academy Awards to speak out in support of various social justice issues, but some stars shocked many observers with jokes deemed insensitive and even racist.

It all began even before the actual ceremony, as best actress nominee Reese Witherspoon used her appearance on the famed red carpet outside Hollywood’s Dolby Theater to promote her #AskHerMore campaign, which encourages reporters covering the event to eschew asking the usual “who are you wearing” questions in favor of more meaningful queries.

“There are so many amazing, talented nominees this year! Let’s hear their stories! Spread the word,” Witherspoon said on the red carpet. Earlier, she took to Instagram to post some suggested questions for Oscar reporters to ask, including what accomplishments are female actresses most proud of and what are the biggest risks they have taken during their careers.

Once the ceremony began, host Neil Patrick Harris immediately fired off a joke that addressed the #OscarsSoWhite debate. All 20 of this year’s acting nominees are white, a first since 1998, and many people felt that David Oyelowo, the British actor who played Martin Luther King, Jr. in Selma, had been snubbed by the Academy.

“Tonight we honor Hollywood’s best and whitest—sorry, brightest,” said Harris in his opening line. But NPH would later raise eyebrows and ire among supporters of former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden when he joked that the exiled whistleblower, the subject of Best Documentary Feature winner Citizenfour, “couldn’t be here for some treason.”

Investigative journalist Glenn Greenwald, who took home an Oscar for his work on the film, was incensed, telling BuzzFeed at the swank Governor’s Ball afterparty that Harris’ joke was “pretty pitiful.”

“To just casually spew that sort of accusation against someone who’s not even charged with [treason], let alone convicted of it, I think is… stupid and irresponsible,” fumed Greenwald.

As the ceremony continued, gender and racial equality would be addressed again. After winning Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her work in Boyhood, Patricia Arquette asserted that it is “our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.” This drew an rousing response from many in the audience, with the camera focusing on Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez applauding enthusiastically and punching the air.

Later, racial inequality—including the mass incarceration of people of color—was the subject of the acceptance speech delivered by Common and John Legend, who took home Best Original Song Oscars for “Glory,” from Selma.

“Nina Simone said it’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times in which we live,” said Common as he collected his guilded statuette. “We wrote this song for a film that was based on events that were 50 years ago, but we say that Selma is now, because the struggle for justice is right now. We know that the Voting Rights Act that they fought for 50 years ago is being compromised right now in this country.”

“We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” he added, noting that in the US “there are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”

Legend gave a shout out to “those in France standing up for their freedom of expression” and members of the Occupy movement “protesting for democracy in Hong Kong.”

The biggest controversy of the evening came when Sean Penn, who was presenting the Oscar for Best Picture to Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu, quipped, “who gave this son of a bitch a Green Card?”

Iñárritu, who used his speech to call for “dignity and respect” for his fellow Mexicans living in the United States, later said he found Penn’s joke “hilarious.” But plenty of others certainly did not.

The progressive pronouncements at Sunday’s ceremony, and the left-of-center leanings of Hollywood in general, have irked and angered many conservative observers.

Fox News contributor and Clueless star Stacey Dash said she was “appalled” by Arquette’s call for gender wage equality, despite the glaring truth that American women still earn, on average, 78 percent as much as men.

John Nolte, Breitbart’s Hollywood editor-at-large, repeatedly tweeted that the Oscar audience only applauded Selma, including the powerful live performance of “Glory” by John Legend and Common (in which the civil rights struggles of the 1960s are connected to today’s events in places like Ferguson, Missouri), to “pretend they are not racist.”

Ultra-conservative firebrand Debbie Schlussel fired off too many eyebrow-raising Oscar-related tweets to repeat here, save for this one:

Schlussel racist

Other conservatives vented spleen over what they perceive as liberal Hollywood’s snub of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which earned $428 million and critical acclaim but took home only one Oscar, for Best Sound Editing. Right-wing reaction ranged from a resigned “predictable” from Fox News host Sean Hannity, to predictable Obama-bashing from Donald Trump, to the downright disgusting:

American Sniper racist

And speaking of disgusting, Kristi Capel, anchor at Fox News affiliate Fox 8 Cleveland, inexplicably referred to Lady Gaga’s cover of The Sound of Music as “jigaboo music” during a live newscast—seated next to her black co-anchor.

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