Rami Malek Wins The Oscar But Fails To Mention AIDS. What Are Platforms For?
On Sunday 24th February 2019, the 91st Academy Awards marked the end of awards season. Like every year, the pre-ceremony chatter included predictable conversations, like making bets about winners, and the topical gossip, such as why this year is without a host.
The 2019 Oscars was run-of-the-mill, if you can call an A-list event such a thing. Aside from Green Book for Best Picture, the winners weren’t a huge shock. Olivia Colman’s win for Best Actress mirrored her wins at the season’s other awards, including the BAFTAs, and Lady Gaga’s award and performance for ‘Shallow’ was excellent, but expected.
Rami Malek took home the Oscar for Best Actor for his portrayal of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody. The award wasn’t a surprise: Malek also took home the Best Actor Award at the BAFTAs, the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
His acceptance speech thanked his family, his producers, the cast, and Queen, who were in the audience. He nodded to Freddie Mercury’s attributes, of living fearlessly, unapologetically, and against the status quo. What he failed to mention, was the disease that killed Mercury: AIDS.
People took to Twitter to express their disappointment in Malek’s speech. ACT UP, a New York-based activist group committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis were among them.
It’s hard to argue against the outcry, particularly when Richard E. Grant’s acceptance speech for his role in Can You Ever Forgive Me paid more homage to those lost to AIDS than any of Bohemian Rhapsody’s wins did throughout the entire awards season.
However, what most viewers won’t know, is that Malek works with the RED organisation, who seek to engage the private sector in raising awareness and funds to help eliminate HIV/AIDS in eight African countries. Malek’s work with the brand was inspired by his Freddie Mercury role, and he even visited Eswatini to further educate himself.
Upon seeing first-hand, the impact of the horrific disease, Malek said of his involvement with RED, ‘I can’t think of anything I would rather be a part of, more than fulfilling any personal dream or aspiration.’
So, the commitment to extending awareness and combating HIV that viewers hoped to see in Malek’s acceptance speeches, does exist. It just failed to gain airtime on stage.
This poses the question of what the stage platform should be used for, and how acceptance speeches can carry more weight than merely thanking those involved with the film and the winner’s family.
It is no secret that the Oscars, and other awards ceremonies attract thousands of viewers every year. The social media commentary increases this figure tenfold, and tweet engagement rockets as trending topics dominate online conversation.
The role of the internet in furthering discussion and interrogating heavy topics beyond the limits of the live moment (i.e. the hours of Oscar’s discussion after the one-minute acceptance speech) cannot be underestimated. The immediacy, and indeed the nuance of the online discussion facilitated by Twitter means that as cultural consumers, we are always expecting more. The bar has been raised, and the use of platforms is one area where this new level of expectation is clear.
Malek uses his platform as an actor, and as a man with proximity to the experience of AIDS through his portrayal of Mercury, to contribute to the fight against AIDS. However, because this happens off-screen, it fails to showcase itself as something worth-applauding.
In omitting to use his stage platform – a physical one – at every awards ceremony this season, Malek has missed an opportunity to rally more troops to back the cause, as well as missing the chance to position himself as a figurehead in the ongoing fight against HIV/AIDS.
You could argue that those who know Freddie Mercury’s story and those who have seen the film understand the nature of the disease and the work required to eliminate it. But in an age where celebrity platforms are expected to further important causes, it’s difficult to argue that the film alone is enough.
There are plenty of examples of winners using the acceptance speech format to illuminate issues that are bigger than the films themselves. Spike Lee used his Oscar win for BlacKkKlansman to illuminate the 400-year history of slavery, and paid homage to the ancestors who built the America we know today.
Using the acceptance speech as a platform to spread awareness for wider issues is not a new phenomenon, either. Marlon Brando boycotted the 1973 Oscars, sending actress and activist Sacheen Littlefeather in his place. Ascending to the stage as Brando wins for Best Actor in The Godfather, Littlefeather explained that he was ‘very respectfully’ turning down the award as a protest against ‘the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry and on television.’ In 2015, when accepting the Best Supporting Actress Award for Boyhood, Patricia Arquette used the platform to call for gender equality. She said, ‘It’s our time to have wage equality once and for all and equal rights for women in the United States of America.’ Arquette later confirmed that she was supporting the women’s movement as a whole.
In a world where identity, politics and dark histories dominate some of our key issues, it is not enough to separate art, and artistic platform from the opportunity to say something meaningful. In fact, in a world of ongoing discrimination, severe political uncertainty, and increasing divisions, celebrities with wide-reaching platforms should acknowledge the power of their elevated speech.