Oscars: Here’s How Not to Be Like Sean Penn


Screen shot from a video posted to the Academy’s Facebook page

Can I talk directly to my people for a moment?

Hi, white folks! Glad you’re doing well! Or, I should say, I’m glad we’re doing well, since I’m totally one of you. The Oscars last night was kind of a wash for those of us who think of us as an “us”: Neil Patrick Harris couldn’t save his pitiable jokes, American Sniper got shut out of the major awards, and Common and John Legend proclaimed with power and urgency truths that many of us spend our lives avoiding — truths that make the dumbest of our ilk freak the hell out:

But Martin Luther King said something about not judging a people by its trolls. Instead, let’s talk about Sean Penn, the bedheaded actor who for a generation has exemplified Hollywood leftiness and showed up last night looking like Bob Dylan Hitler.

Last night, just before announcing Birdman‘s win for Best Picture, Penn allowed himself a long pause — and then launched a dumb, chummy joke at Birdman‘s director, Alejandro González Iñárritu: “Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?”

The joke, I guess: Iñárritu is Mexican, which apparently implies to Penn that there must be some illegality about his success in America. Just seconds after Penn’s crack, Iñárritu pleaded with an international audience for more “dignity and respect” for immigrants, an honor Penn denied the director on the biggest night of his career.

In that moment Penn exemplified how “liberal Hollywood” is still ruled by blinkered white folks who find anyone different from them queasily comic.

Penn probably intended it as a bit of warm ribbing to a pal, a more roguish take on Steven Spielberg’s shout-out to Robert Zemeckis’s kid when presenting 1995’s Best Director Oscar: “Alex, your father just won the Academy Award!” (Iñárritu directed Penn in 21 Grams, a movie that racked up plenty of Oscar nominations itself.)

But Penn came across as boorish, tone-deaf, and deeply out of step with a ceremony whose winners almost uniformly used their acceptance speeches as opportunities to champion those marginalized in so many studio pictures. Shouldn’t the man touted as one of the greatest actors of the age be more in tune with the age’s nuances?

It’s tricky, sometimes, for white guys to crack jokes these days. Here’s three suggestions to help you not come across like Penn did — and possibly to help you feel better about the way things have changed.

1. Stop conceiving of people like you as the norm and everyone different as somehow off.
Penn’s mistake, as he stood there, hauling a joke up from within him, was to go with the same line of thinking Don Rickles might have followed at a Dean Martin Celebrity Roast: Iñárritu is Mexican, and Mexico is different, so that must be the source of humor, because all us normal people agree that accomplished Mexicans in America must have bribed la migra, right?

No, we don’t all think that. And nobody thought that last year, when Alfonso Cuarón won Best Director for Gravity. At that moment, Sean Penn made the same joke Rush Limbaugh would have gone for: You can’t trust those immigrants!

2. Accept that people who aren’t like you don’t conform to the cheapest of stereotypes.
Have you ever seen a 1990s Def Comedy routine about how white people walk like this and eat mayonnaise and pay their bills on time? You probably don’t do all that, so stop assuming everyone else is like whatever cartoon version of them you grew up with.

And don’t trot out old racist stereotypes as jokes to show that you’re aware of them and above them — I mean, did you hear all that me so solly crap Seth Rogen tried to get away with in The Interview? Irony’s no cover for it: What you’re really demonstrating to the world when you transpose your R’s and L’s for a laugh is “This is what my brain goes to when I think about people of Asian extraction.” Same with Penn: Just because you know in your heart that you’re the opposite of racist doesn’t mean you can’t be an insensitive galoot.

3. Understand that treating people different from you with that respect and dignity does not rob you of dignity — or of freedom.
You might feel the urge to shout about political correctness. Sure, go ahead. Then, once you’re done, consider this: You can still say anything that you want to. Twitter and comment threads are full of the most vile of racist invective, all of which makes Penn’s dumb joke look soft and mild. The difference is that today you get called out for it when you fail to treat people with the decency that Iñárritu called for. This is not a denial of your right to free speech — it’s the triumph of everyone else’s.

Worldwide, white people are engaged in a fascinating project: Learning to share the world they have for centuries thought of as theirs. (Recent box-office bombs McFarland, USA and Strange Magic make this an explicit theme.) Some white folks may find that frightening, or unfair, or whatever, but I doubt Sean Penn is among them. That’s what makes his joke so disappointing: If even he seems to think of a great Mexican talent as an Other, how can he stand up to the fools baying for more proof that the president wasn’t born in Kenya?

Now, can we get back to what we should be annoyed about: Birdman for Best Picture? For real? And, hey, congratulations to J.K. Simmons for his win for his stunning turn in Jazz Asshole.

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