Harry Belafonte gave one of the all-time great acceptance speeches at Saturday night’s sixth annual Governors Awards, citing Hollywood’s often-shameful power to influence attitudes, and challenging the heavy-hitters in the room to instead create works that allow global audiences “to see the better side of who we are as a species.”
The performer, receiving the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award, pulled no punches, and his words were all the more effective because of the soft, even tone in his voice and the cautious optimism that concluded his speech.
The three recipients of Honorary Oscars — Maureen O’Hara, Hayao Miyazaki and Jean-Claude Carriere — all provided moments that were touching and charming. But, concluding the evening with a long and electric speech, Belafonte took things to a whole other level.
He reminded the crowd about Birth of a Nation, the early Tarzan films and Song of the South, as well as the industry’s cowardice during the McCarthy hearings.
He also referred to the industry’s decades-long treatment of Native Americans in films. The industry doesn’t like trouble-makers and “on occasion, I have been one of its targets.”
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The first recipient of the evening was O’Hara, now 94, who came onstage in a wheelchair and charmed everyone by singing a few lines of Danny Boy. She read her thanks and when her escort asked her to stand and take a bow, she said “Oh, no!” saying she intended to stay another 10 minutes and tell her life story.
Miyazaki, speaking with a translator, said he feels “lucky to be part of the last era when we can make films with paper, pencils and film.” Introducing him, John Lasseter hailed the Japanese filmmaker as one of animation’s greats, along with Walt Disney, and said Miyazaki has directed 11 animated features, more than anyone else in history.
Carriere, who boasts 139 credits, said he was particularly pleased that an award was given to a scripter. “Very often screenwriters are like shadows passing through the history of cinema,” he said.