Oscars: Revisiting Eddie Murphy's Epic 1988 Takedown of the Academy

A poignant Eddie Murphy rant is more prescient than ever. Despite a historic year such as 2023, which produced the highest number of Asian nominees at the Oscars ever in a single year, controversy still persists over whether these shows have made a genuine commitment to equity. There have been complaints that the Academy Awards failed to acknowledge Black female talent this year. At the BAFTAS, effectively the UK's Oscars, this year's winners were all white. Undoubtedly, mainstream awards are in high demand due to their economic benefits and clout within the entertainment industry. However, some parties have argued that despite public pressure, only incremental changes have been made in the entertainment industry as a whole. When juxtaposed with today's Hollywood, Murphy's insightful speech at the 1988 Oscars takes on a different level of significance. Before the hashtag "Oscars so white" became viral, the comedian presented the award for best picture, challenging the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences's lack of racial representation. At the time of his Oscars speech, Murphy, at the height of his fame in 1988, recounted a conversation with his agent in which he avoided the invitation to present an award. To many people, the speech still resonates today. "They came to me and said that they wanted me to present the award for best picture — my manager came and told me that the Academy had picked me," he said. "My first reaction was to say 'no, I ain't going.' My manager said 'but why?!' I said 'I'm not going because they haven't recognized black people in their motion pictures!'"

In his recollection of his conversation with his manager, Murphy played out this argument to mixed laughter and chatter in the crowd. "He said 'What are you talking about, black people win Oscars!' I said 'well, black actors and actresses have won Oscars throughout 60 years.'" As Murphy put it, this speech might affect his chances to win an Oscar in the future, saying: "I'll probably never win an Oscar from saying this, but hey, what the hey, I gotta say it." "Actually," he went on, "I might not be in any trouble, because the way it's going it's about every 20 years we get one, so we ain't due till about 2004, so... By that time this will all blow over." After recounting his story, Murphy ended with the conviction that he was right, and his manager was wrong. "I said I wasn't going, but my manager said 'you just have to go, you can't snub the Academy.' So I came down here to give the award... But I just feel we have to recognize as a people — I just want you to know that I'm going to give this award, but black people will not ride the caboose of society, and we will not bring up the rear anymore! And I want you to recognize it!'"

Despite his compelling message, Murphy couldn't resist ending with a joke. "He said 'alright, fine! It's done!' and I said 'when do I have to be there?' He said, well you don't have to get there until about 9 or 10, because it's the last award of the evening,'" Murphy said. "So... in keeping with the great old Hollywood tradition, the pictures nominated for best picture are..." Murphy recalled the memorable moment during a sit-down with CBS's Sunday Morning in December 2019. In the interview, host Tracy Smith asked, "At the time, did you have people saying, 'Ooh, Eddie, you shouldn't have done that'?" "No," Murphy replied. "You know what's interesting? After I said that, it went the exact opposite way. There was no mention – it was almost like I wasn't at the awards that night. The next day, there was no mention of it in the papers. Not a blip. And there were no pictures of me at the Oscars. "You said in that speech, you know, this probably ruins my chance of getting nominated for an Oscar …" Smith said. "And then I didn't get nominated for Oscars for years!" Murphy answered. "You think that had something to do with it?" Smith asked. "I don't know. What do you think?" he laughed.