Over and above demonstrations and political rallies, major industry award ceremonies like the Grammys and the Oscars have become favored venues for entertainers who exercise their celebrity to advance political commentary. Well-known practitioners include Susan Sarandon, Bono and, of course, Michael Moore, though many more entertainers make a point of speaking on behalf of peace, human rights, civil liberties, and social justice. For me, several celebrity speeches stand out as especially edgy and public responses to them say quite a bit about how we handle the lusty affair between politics and entertainment. (We all know they’ve been sleeping together even if, as with so many illicit pleasures, we choose not to talk about it.)
Recall, for example, Halle Berry’s decision to use the acceptance speech for her 2002 Best Actress award to comment on the history of racial discrimination that marks Hollywood. Berry’s impassioned speech insisted: “This moment is so much bigger than me. This moment is for Dorothy Dandridge, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll. It’s for the women that stand beside me, Jada Pinkett, Angela Bassett, Vivica Fox. And it’s for every nameless, faceless woman of color that now has a chance because this door tonight has been opened. Thank you. I’m so honored. I’m so honored. And I thank the Academy for choosing me to be the vessel for which His blessing might flow. Thank you.” Berry’s invocation of the gendered and racial politics of invisibility that impact women of color, was later compared to Denzel Washington’s comparably demure and decidedly “apolitical” acceptance speech for Best Actor with a regularity that did more to prove how prominent racial issues remain in Hollywood, than her candid discussion of the subject.
At last year’s Academy Awards, while introducing a song from Frida (2002), Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal commented on both US foreign policy and his relationship to the very institution within which he had been positioned as a presenter. In a ContactMusic.com article entitled “Bernal’s Oscar Rebellion”, the actor notes that although he was honored to be chosen as a presenter, he “was also horrified at the clichéd, patronizing script the Academy wanted him to read; especially considering his stance on the US’s imminent war against Iraq” (2 October 2003). Bernal read from Frida Kahlo’s diary as instructed. He then calmly added that if the subject of the film were alive “she would be on our side, against the war”. Cynical about the efficacy of his “rebellion”, Bernal later joked that his comment likely only served to make the Hollywood elite aware that he spoke English.
More recently, comedian George Lopez shot a playful jab at George W. Bush while hosting this year’s Latin Grammys. Testing the rumor that the president understands a little Spanish, Lopez issued a directive: “!Ya no mames wey!” Lopez also offered a translation for non-Spanish speakers: “I said, ‘good luck in your future endeavors.’” News commentary on the joke purposely mistranslates, providing “polite” versions of the quip like: “Stop lying, you jerk!” and “Don’t lie to me,” as well as the truly vague, “Cut it out, jerk.” So far as I can gather, this Mexican colloquialism demands, “Stop messing around already, jackass!” Though there’s also some sucking inference to the phrase, and definitely an unseemly reference that has something to do with farm animals.
Various responses answer the type of political remarks that I have recounted. Some applaud, like audience members at the Latin Grammys who signaled their approval of Lopez with a roar of cheers and laughter. Some grumble, raising arguments that generally revolve around two themes: the (misguided) perception that “the media” is liberal/progressive/radical, and the conviction that entertainment and politics should not mix. Others have the power to silence
For CBS viewers, Lopez’ voice was zapped from the airwaves and cable lines that feed our media-greedy homes. In short: he was censored. The not-so-subtle physical lowering of the mic that award ceremonies traditionally have employed to silence noisy stars has been replaced by the brief time delay that networks embraced in the wake of Janet Jackson’s renegade boob offense.
What’s the significance of CBS deleting political criticism that was meant for Spanish-speaking viewers? ABC13.com published a brief and rather dim engagement with the question. In “Network censors will bleep you, no matter what language you use” (2 September 2004), ABC13.com determined that: “It doesn’t matter what language you’re speaking. The network censors can figure it out. George Lopez found that out. As host of the Latin Grammy Awards, he got bleeped by the CBS censors.” Well, that doesn’t sound right. Network censors would not have jumped from their seats in the seconds between Lopez’ live statement and its national broadcast if he’d simply asked GW to “cut it out” or called the President a jackass in English. Far more vicious comments were leveled against John Kerry by Senator Zell Miller during the Republican National Convention, though I heard of no measures to censor them. If anything, the incident at the Latin Grammys demonstrates that the language within which a political message is delivered does matter. It matters a great deal. This comes through in Bernal’s thoughts on his Academy Awards clash; it comes through with both Lopez’ joke and the network’s response to it.
Because there are so many voters in the US who understand Spanish, the language has become an important target for public officials. As the people who got the joke already knew, both George W. Bush and John Kerry run Spanish-language ad campaigns because Latino votes are a much sought after prize. Lopez criticizing Bush in Spanish to Spanish-speakers, a demographic that leans toward the left, is thus especially powerful ammunition against the incumbent. What, after all, are Republicans going to do about Latinos? If the number of Latinos continues to grow which, by all indications, is going to happen, and with some exceptions such as the conservative Cuban contingent in Miami we continue to lean toward the left, then how can conservative politicians keep from losing ground?
The Republicans could change their platform. This appears to be at the crux of Bush’s somewhat schizophrenic relationship to immigration policy, as exemplified by his support for a temporary worker program as well as other issues of particular importance to Latino voters (like health care, national debt and all the other things that everyone cares about). Republicans alternatively could attempt to subdue the demographic shift that threatens them by slowing the flow of Latinos entering the US through discriminatory legislation. Granted, it’s a severe measure, but it’s one that defined US immigration law (especially with respect to Asians) until the Immigration Act of 1965 ended quotas based on national origins. Or perhaps, and this is what Lopez’ joke appears most powerfully to have communicated: they just can’t win.