This year's Academy Awards took a weird turn. It hummed along, recognizing films and actors who highlighted issues such as ALS and Alzheimer's disease. Many of the winners even included calls to action in their acceptance speeches, such as Patricia Arquette demanding equal pay for women and Graham Moore reassuring those contemplating suicide. And then, right at the end, Sean Penn stepped up to announce the winner for best picture.
I think most everyone knew "Birdman" was about to win, given that Iñárritu had already won the Oscar for best director. But just moments before Iñárritu and his crew could go up and receive their award, they first had to listen to Sean Penn's tasteless joke announcing their win.
"Who gave this son of a bitch his green card?" asked Penn.
Now, it's important to note that Penn and Iñárritu have known one another for awhile (they worked together on the film "21 Grams"). Was Penn being macho and giving the Mexican director a congratulatory hard time in that completely asinine way that guy friends sometimes do? Probably.
But it came off all wrong. Instead of sounding teasing, Penn sounds like a racist jerk.
The problem is that his words come at a time when racial and ethnic tensions are high in this country (though, when aren't they?) and the controversy surrounding immigration reform is strong. He might as well have said, "send this guy back to Mexico, where he belongs," or "help, he's stealing American Oscars!"
What about all the British actors that were there winning Oscars? I hope he teased all of them, too.
I'm glad Penn and Iñárritu are friends. But friendship aside, how crappy is it that at the very moment of your crowning success, some bozo has to make a remark that implies you don't deserve the award? On national television, no less. And although Iñárritu has called Penn's remarks a "brutal" joke between old friends and that he found it hilarious, I have to wonder how the remark was received by Iñarritu's kids, who were part of their dad's celebrations and probably not in on the joke. It certainly wasn't received well by many Latinos on social media who were watching from home.
It was a horrible choice of words on Penn's part. They're extra disappointing given that he's someone who has fought for human rights and dignity on so many occasions, and the fact that this year's Academy Awards have been deeply criticized for lack of diversity. Penn should know better than anyone that words have power and make an impact on ALL of the ears that hear them, joke or not. The fact that it even has to be explained that this was a joke means he got it wrong.
A joke between friends should be spoken between friends. But a tasteless comment on national TV on a controversial topic that already has a nation divided is insensitive, thoughtless, and extremely bad judgment.
Luckily, Iñárritu grabbed the moment and turned it right back around with his final words—and the last ones of the night:
"I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the ones who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country - who are part of the latest generation of immigrants - I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and respect of the ones that came before and built this incredible immigrant nation."
Too bad Penn didn't grant him the same dignity and respect in public and save the private jokes for later.