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Cancel the Oscars

Trump’s immigration order has grave implications for an industry built by immigrants and refugees.

88th Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

President Donald Trump’s new immigration order — the one many have labeled a “Muslim ban” because it temporarily bars entry to the US for natives of seven Muslim-majority countries — stops people associated with various Oscar-nominated films from attending the 2017 Academy Awards. That’s just one reason the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences should cancel its annual ceremony and instead announce the winners via press release.

By default, the order prevents Iranian director Asghar Farhadi, who is nominated for Foreign Language Film for The Salesman, and the subjects of Documentary Short nominee The White Helmets, who are Syrian volunteer rescue workers, from traveling to America for the awards — though the White House suggested to People magazine it might provide waivers for those affected by the order to attend the ceremony.

Farhadi, for his part, refuses to attend the ceremony even if he’s granted an exemption, saying the conditions of the order are unacceptable. The Academy has also spoken out:

The Academy celebrates achievement in the art of filmmaking, which seeks to transcend borders and speak to audiences around the world, regardless of national, ethnic, or religious differences. As supporters of filmmakers—and the human rights of all people—around the globe, we find it extremely troubling that Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning film from Iran A Separation, along with the cast and crew of this year’s Oscar-nominated film The Salesman, could be barred from entering the country because of their religion or country of origin.

But the value of these statements, however noble and strongly worded they may be, is mostly symbolic. If the Academy truly wishes to push back, more than public statements are required.

The Oscars probably won’t be canceled. But political speeches won’t be enough.

There are many reasons why the awards will almost certainly go on as planned. Canceling would mean straining the Academy’s relationship with TV network ABC, which broadcasts the ceremony. It would probably result in huge monetary losses, due to breached contracts with vendors hired to help set up the awards. And it would deprive Academy members of their annual celebration of film, which is at the center of many social calendars.

Meanwhile, cancellation would admittedly be a drop in the bucket in terms of fighting for the repeal of Trump’s restrictions.

But the US government has taken real, tangible actions that affect the Hollywood community. The order might most notably pertain to Farhadi (who, I should add, is one of the greatest living filmmakers and one of the most compassionate human beings you’ll ever meet) and the subjects of The White Helmets (who, again, are volunteer rescue workers in the middle of a civil war).

84th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Asghar Farhadi accepts an Oscar for A Separation.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

But it also applies to many other members of the film and television industries, who in some cases will no longer be allowed to travel to the US to work, and in other cases are now essentially trapped here by green cards or visas that will cease to be valid once they leave.

The Oscars have become semi-famous for speeches calling for political action. But speeches ultimately don’t risk all that much, because the people delivering them are speaking to a room full of mostly friendly, well-off liberals. Canceling the ceremony altogether would be a bolder and more appropriate act of protest.

The Oscars have been postponed but never canceled before

The Oscars have been postponed three times. In 1938, flooding in Los Angeles led to a one-week delay, and another one-week delay occurred in 1968, due to the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Then, in 1981, the awards were delayed for a single day after the attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan.

The awards have almost been canceled, but never officially canceled. And the handful of times the Academy has had to draw up contingency plans for having no Oscars were generally the result of labor disputes, most recently the 2007-’08 writers’ strike. Even World War II didn’t mess with the annual tradition.

So why break with precedent now?

The Oscars have long been seen as a political platform, even if the Academy might not wish for them to become one. Award winners have frequently utilized the Academy’s rather laissez faire approach to the content of winners’ speeches to advocate for positions they believe in — most famously when Michael Moore spoke out against the war in Iraq after winning for Bowling for Columbine in 2003, but also when Marlon Brando declined his award for The Godfather in 1973 in favor of sending Sacheen Littlefeather to speak about demeaning treatment of Native Americans.

Political Oscars speeches reached their zenith in 1993, when Richard Gere, Tim Robbins, and Susan Sarandon all spoke out for liberal causes while presenting awards. This led to longtime Oscar telecast producer Gil Cates threatening all three with lifetime bans from the Oscars.

When Sarandon won an Oscar just a few years later in 1996, for anti-death penalty film Dead Man Walking, she mostly left politics out of her speech, except for a vague call to find a way to “nonviolently end violence.” Gere, for his part, didn’t return to the Oscars for 20 years.

So it’s likely that almost every winner at the 2017 Oscars will speak out against Trump and his executive order, as so many did at the recent SAG Awards. They might even zero in on the absurdity of what happened: Those most in the public eye were offered special treatment, while their less-well-known peers sat in airport limbo or waited to be sent back to countries they no longer live or work in.

Doing so would keep with longstanding Oscar tradition, and many in the Hollywood community would welcome such forthright political statements. (As would the show’s producers; the spontaneity of such speeches makes the show more entertaining.)

But the immigration order affects Hollywood more than many other industries, and thus necessitates a bolder response than a night of impassioned political speeches.

Hollywood was built by immigrants and refugees

Few other industries are as reliant on talent not only being able to come to America, but wanting to come to America to stake their claim in its entertainment industry. Like it or not, Hollywood is still the center of the global film and television industries, though its centrality is shrinking. Trump’s executive order only stands to hasten that decline.

What’s more, the industry might not even exist in its current form without the United States’ historical empathy toward those in need of asylum. The movie studio system as we know it was built largely by Jewish men who had direct family memories of fleeing persecution in Europe for somewhere more welcoming.

These men were not perfect — especially when they buckled to government pressure during the Blacklist era. But they would have (I hope) understood the plight of refugees.

Immigration isn’t just vital to Hollywood of the present; it’s written into the very DNA of the industry itself. And it affects more than just actors — though you can almost certainly name dozens who were not born American citizens, even if you don’t follow show business that closely. It extends to technical personnel, to writers and directors, to key grips and cinematographers and visual effects artists.

Hollywood has been wondering what it can do in the era of Trump, how it can remain creatively relevant while standing up for its beliefs. Canceling the Oscars won’t make Trump rethink his position — but it will count as a massive, public stand on behalf of those without whom Hollywood would not exist.