So that ‘green card’ joke from last nights Oscars…nope. Not at all. I wasn’t feeling it.
I instantly knew that Sean Penn was delivering an inside joke to (now) fellow 2-time Academy Award winner Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu. But right after he announced the Best Picture with that “Who gave this son of a bitch a green card? Birdman!” introduction, someone might as well have passed me plate of throw-up, which was how I promptly gazed at the TV screen with a grimace.
After watching Common and John Legend soar with “Glory” and Lady Gaga‘s beautiful tribute to The Sound of Music , I found the “joke” insensitive, uncalled for and it totally cramped the vibe. My mood shifted to the antagonistic, and as I navigated in my mind all the reasons why, I did reach a sudden traffic cone stop. Was I possibly overreacting? Just a little bit? I’ve heard jokes like this before. One of my favorites films ever To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything, Julie Newmar had plenty of them. I’m also the daughter of immigrants, now naturalized citizens, so I’m aware of the green card struggle. Yet, what about the subject’s appearance this time made it such an untouchable? Luckily, I do have some direct resources to why my contempt for Penn’s try at turning the Oscars world stage into a comedy club was more frustrating than it’s been in recent memory.
When I had written a news post about the shocking halt of President Obama‘s DACA Act just some days ago, my heart crushed a little for the 5 million immigrants in America that were being treated like cattle. Texas judge Andrew Hanen voted against the act, which would’ve allowed immigrants in America (for five years and more, and without a criminal record) to sign up for citizenship. I felt sad and powerless as I wrote about the wrath against foreigners, a majority of them of Spanish-speaking descent. Hate disguised as American reform is a level of disrespect that is sometimes too much to witness. Plus, the temerity displaced when lawmakers continue to refer to immigrants as “aliens” still really bothers me. They are not aliens. They are human beings. They live, breathe and chew just like you. What is so creature like about them? To understand more about what immigrants go through, just to arrive and stay on American soil, I urge all of you to watch the film El Norte, a Spanish-speaking film that shows the struggle of a Guatemalan girl and boy trying to escape the Guatemalan Civil War. Nothing about it was campy or funny like Eddie Murphy‘s travel to Queens, New York in Coming to America. It shone a spotlight on the ambitious and scary goal of “crossing the border”, an often thankless journey.
Many immigrants in America, of Spanish-speaking, African and Asian countries are the same people who at some point have watched over celebrity children and cooked the meals of the stringent diets of Hollywood’s elite. If they’re not in Hollywood, they are working the super low-wage jobs that most of us wouldn’t even want to imagine swiping in a timecard for. Why make fun of them when they’ve been at your beck and call, just to provide for their own families? This brings us to Penn, a known Democrat and patron of political causes. While accepting his Best Actor statute for his role in Milk, he name dropped President Obama as a “classy man.” He’s a charitable voice, former volunteer for Hurricane Katrina, and is currently the Ambassador at large for Haiti. Against the complications with DACA and the controversy of undocumented immigrants, the ‘green card’ joke appeared out-of-pocket and out of character for someone like Penn.
Able to look past his friend’s “hilarious” joke (the two worked had together on his film 21 Grams) Gonzalez Inarritu, a native of Mexico City, used the stage, like Penn, to send a message after his win. But his words sounded a lot more like leadership than mockery, naturally:
I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans. I pray we can build a government we deserve. And the ones living in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country. I just pray they can be treated with the same dignity and respect as the ones who came before and built this incredible immigrant nation.”
We all make jokes about race, sex and cultures with our closest friends when not in suit and tie mode. Penn, at the behest of his own amusement, chose to say that kind of joke on national television. And it is the type of joke to be possibly misconstrued because America is still learning how to talk about race and resolving issues about it. Penn’s joke added to the ambivalence. During the Oscars telecast, the audience had already endured lighter versions of race-bait jokes from its host Neil Patrick Harris, the quips similar to that of SNL40. It would’ve been great to see Penn stand with his friend and ask the government and lawmakers to be more sensitive to the legacy and work of so many immigrants that have served America if he wanted to speak on something. If we must practice free speech through provocative comedy, let’s do it with some necessary tact.