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Joaquin Phoenix’s Oscars speech was a sprawling sociopolitical epic

Phoenix discussed racism, queerness, misogyny, animal rights, personal sacrifice, and cancel culture. 

92nd Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Joaquin Phoenix, winner of the Actor in a Leading Role award, on February 9, 2020 in Hollywood, California.
Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Joaquin Phoenix used his Best Actor win at the 2020 Oscars on Sunday to continue his awards-season trend of putting sociopolitical issues in the spotlight. In a sprawling acceptance speech, he touched on social inequality, the cruelty of the food industry toward animals, systemic inequality, and even cancel culture. He closed out by quoting his late brother, River Phoenix.

Phoenix began his speech by expressing his gratitude that his career gave him the opportunity “to use [my] voice for the voiceless.”

“Whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice,” he said. He went on to discuss the trauma that the factoring farming industry visits on livestock. He also repeated a theme from previous awards season speeches, asking viewers to sacrifice more individually to make a larger societal difference.

The full transcript of Phoenix’s speech is below:

Hi. What’s up? Hi. God, I’m full of so much gratitude right now and I do not feel elevated above any of my fellow nominees or anyone in this room, because we share the same love, the love of film, and this form of expression has given me the most extraordinary life. I don’t know what I’d be without it.

But I think the greatest gift that it has given me, and many of us in this room, is the opportunity to use our voice for the voiceless. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the distressing issues that we are facing collectively, and I think at times we feel or are made to feel that we champion different causes. But for me, I see commonality.

I think whether we’re talking about gender inequality or racism or queer rights or indigenous rights or animal rights, we’re talking about the fight against injustice — against the belief that one nation, one race, one gender or one species has the right to dominate, control, and use and exploit another with impunity.

I think that we’ve become very disconnected from the natural world and many of us, what we’re guilty of is an egocentric worldview — the belief that we’re the center of the universe. We go into the natural world and we plunder it for its resources. We feel entitled to artificially inseminate a cow, and when she gives birth, we steal her baby. Even though her cries of anguish are unmistakable. And then we take her milk that’s intended for her calf and we put it in our coffee and our cereal.

And I think we fear the idea of personal change because we think that we have to sacrifice something to give something up but human beings, at our best, are so inventive and creative and ingenious, and I think that when we use love and compassion as our guiding principles, we can create, develop, and implement systems of change that are beneficial to all sentient beings and to the environment.

Now, I have been — I’ve been a scoundrel in my life. I’ve been selfish, I’ve been cruel at times, hard to work with. And I’m grateful [to] so many of you in this room [who] have given me a second chance and I think that’s when we’re at our best, when we support each other, not when we cancel each other out for past mistakes, but when we help each other to grow, when we educate each other, when we guide each other toward redemption. That is the best of humanity.

I just — I want to — when he was 17, my brother wrote this lyric. He said, “Run to the rescue with love and peace will follow.” Thank you.

Phoenix, an early frontrunner and then frequent award winner throughout the 2019–’20 awards season for his performance in Joker, has used each of his speeches throughout the season to turn attention away from himself and toward others. Most of the time he’s focused on important social issues, including climate change and diversity. But even in less publicized moments, the famously recalcitrant actor has looked outward.

First, at the Toronto Film Festival in September, Phoenix spoke at the festival’s new awards gala to kick off the season — but he mainly spoke about his late brother, River Phoenix. River, Phoenix said, was responsible for pushing him to stick with acting, and inadvertently responsible for gifting him his entire career.

Last month, when accepting the Screen Actors Guild award on January 19, he used the opportunity to recognize his fellow actors and especially paid tribute to Heath Ledger, whose iconic Joker performance in 2008’s The Dark Knight influenced a generation of antihero films and clearly left its mark on Todd Phillips’s latest iteration of the character.

If Phoenix had kept up this pattern throughout the whole season, using his speeches to discuss personal hurdles and achievements rather than sociopolitical issues, the speeches may have flown under the radar. But during some of the more high-profile awards shows, Phoenix went further.

On January 5, while accepting the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama, he diverged from typical acceptance speech fodder to tackle climate change and veganism. He also drew attention to the Australian bushfires and urged viewers to “make changes and sacrifices in our own lives” to help the overall problem of climate change.

This year, several awards shows, including the Critics’ Choice and the Golden Globes, made the decision to go vegan, reportedly because of pushes by Phoenix and other pro-vegan members of the film industry. In his Golden Globes speech, Phoenix thanked the Hollywood Foreign Press, which oversees the Globes, for the “bold move of making tonight plant-based.”

On January 12, accepting the Critics’ Choice Award, Phoenix again discussed veganism. “I’d like to thank the awards for going plant-based and trying to offset our carbon footprint,” he said. “It’s a really amazing message.” He also discussed gun violence and thanked Joker director Todd Phillips for humanizing disenfranchised perpetrators of gun violence.

Phoenix’s next politically charged stop on the awards circuit was the British Academy Film Awards. During his BAFTA speech in February after winning Leading Actor, he called attention to the often-debated topic of diversity in filmmaking, and specifically to the all-white lineup of actors in his category. “I have to say I also feel conflicted, because so many of my fellow actors that are deserving don’t have that same privilege,” he said.

Phoenix’s speeches, along with reports of backstage behavior where he was arguably rude to a reporter, sparked debate, and raised some questions about whether the Oscars should be “nervous” about a similar political speech. But even though the 2020 Oscars were dominated by white acting nominees, Phoenix’s speech came during a ceremony that seemed heavy on diversity, and frequently skewed political.

Joker was a highly divisive film, with many people (including Vox staff) arguing that it glorified violence without saying anything new. Phoenix turning his awards season campaign and Oscar win for the film into a chance to criticize a wide range of social ills is more than a little ironic. But it did seem as though Phoenix was attempting to make his Oscar win as little about himself as possible — and that was probably the best approach.