Brando called out the stereotyping of non-whites in Hollywood and said it could leave lasting damage on kids from the community.
There's still a way to go before Hollywood can get representation right, but over the last decade there has been considerable progress. LGBTQ+ and minority visibility and representation have shot up in recent years, mainly thanks to projects led by people of the same community. An old clip of Hollywood stalwart Marlon Brando speaking about representation recently did the rounds of the internet and highlighted how his views on representation and stereotyping in Hollywood were way ahead of time. “I don't think people realize what the motion picture industry has done to the American Indian, and a matter of fact, all ethnic groups. All minorities. All non-whites,” the "Godfather" star said in an interview shortly after sending Sacheen Littlefeather, a Yaqui and Apache actress and activist, dressed in traditional clothing, on his behalf to talk about the injustices faced by Native Americans at the Oscars. The actor had just won the Academy Award for his performance in "The Godfather" but he chose the moment to raise awareness on a bigger issue in Hollywood and America.
“So when someone makes a protest of some kind and says, 'No, please don't present the Chinese this way.' ... On this network, you can see silly renditions of human behavior," he said, before calling out some of the stereotypes often portrayed onscreen. "The leering Filipino houseboy, the wily Japanese or the kook or the gook. The idiot Black man, the stupid Indian. It goes on and on and on, and people don't realize how deeply these people are injured by seeing themselves represented — not the adults, who are already inured to that kind of pain and pressure, but the children. Indian children, seeing Indians represented as savage, ugly, vicious, treacherous, drunken — they grow up only with a negative image of themselves, and it lasts a lifetime,” he said.
Hollywood and large parts of America didn't pay too much attention to Brando's words. Many even mocked him for it and laughed at him. Retrospectively, Brando's words weigh heavy on Hollywood and America, which are beginning to reflect and portray minorities with dignity. Sacheen Littlefeather's speech at the Oscars is still considered one of the most powerful moments in the academy award's history. She declined the statuette from presenter Roger Moore and took the mic. “I’m Apache and…I’m representing Marlon Brando this evening, and he has asked me to tell you in a very long speech that I cannot share with you presently, because of time…[that] he very regretfully cannot accept this very generous award,” she said. “And the reasons for this being are the treatment of American Indians today by the film industry.” It was the first time the Oscars had been used to make a strong political statement.
"I felt there was an opportunity," said Brando. "Since the American Indian hasn't been able to have his voice heard anywhere in the history of the United States, I thought it was a marvelous opportunity to voice his opinion to 85 million people. I felt that he had a right to, in view of what Hollywood has done to him." Littlefeather spoke to KQED about the powerful moment. "A lot of people were making money off of that racism of the Hollywood Indian," said Littlefeather. "Of course, they’re going to boo. They don't want their evening interrupted."
Brando said it was John Collier’s novel “Indians of the Americas” that really wised him up to the genocide and oppression of Native Americans. “After reading the book I realized, I knew nothing about the American Indian, and everything that we are taught about the American Indian is wrong,” Brando said. “It’s inaccurate. Our school books are hopelessly lacking, criminally lacking, in revealing what our relationship was with the Indian.”
“When we hear, as we’ve heard throughout all our lives, no matter how old we are, that we are a country that stands for freedom, for rightness, for justice for everyone, it simply doesn’t apply to those who are not white,” said Brando said. “It just simply doesn’t apply, and we were simply the most rapacious, aggressive, destructive, torturing, monstrous people who swept from one coast to the other murdering and causing mayhem among the Indians.”